“Richard Jewell” is a sincere and extremely well-acted irritant from 89-year-old director Clint Eastwood. It’s destined to get under the hides of different moviegoers in radically different ways. You may loathe parts of it, and still come out shaken and teary-eyed. You can choose to read it apolitically, if you squint hard enough. But we’ll get to that.
Bolstered by its cast — the culminating scenes get all the finesse they require from Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates and Sam Rockwell — it tells the story of how a hungry, sloppy media and a sloppy, hungry FBI nearly destroyed the life of an Atlanta security guard. Jewell was suspected, wrongly, of planting a pipe bomb killing two and injuring more than 100 amid the 1996 Summer Olympics. For a time after his exoneration, the suspect’s nightmare became known as “the Jewell syndrome.” In other words: rush to judgment. Innocence presumed guilty.
The screenplay’s version of Jewell is noble simplicity incarnate — a spiritual cousin to Hilary Swank’s saintly boxer in the Oscar-winning Eastwood drama “Million Dollar Baby.” Billy Ray, who wrote the very fine “Captain Phillips,” works from Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair feature. The film begins in 1986. Jewell (Hauser) clerks at an office where he meets attorney Watson Bryant (Rockwell). They both like video games like “Turkey Shoot.” Watson nicknames Jewell “Radar,” after the solicitous, intuitive “MASH” character.
Jewell takes a good while to find his true calling. Ten years later, after some abbreviated and controversial stints in security and law enforcement, he’s living with his God-fearing, patriotic Baptist mother, Bobi (Bates), working the grounds at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. One night he spots a suspicious backpack and calls it in. The nail-studded pipe bomb explodes, but Jewell’s discovery minimizes the loss of life and makes him a hero and media darling.
And then the worms turn, along with the viewer’s stomach. Personified by Jon Hamm’s agent, the one leading the bombing investigation, the FBI fingers Jewell as a loner and a loser who craved attention and may have planted the bomb in order to discover it. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs extracts a tip from the Hamm character — in bed, according to the movie, because she’s a typical female movie reporter. Presto: a Page One smear job on Jewell, inferring that he’s the bomber. Fangs bared, Olivia Wilde does what she can as Scruggs, a journalist (conveniently dead in real life) depicted by Eastwood so that a worldwide audience can chant in unison: Lock her up.
Thus begins Jewell’s nearly three-month ordeal, holed up in his mother’s apartment, killing time and discussing strategy with his lawyer, coping with an onslaught of sinister news accounts and merciless late-night talk show jokes. In the wake of “Joker,” “Richard Jewell” taps a deep and weirdly similar vein of aggrieved persecution. It is not easy to watch Eastwood’s film, built — necessarily — as it is on watching the world pile on as Jewell is bullied, humiliated, underestimated and marginalized until his sudden fame and equally sudden disgrace.
The smaller the scenes, the truer the drama. For years we’ve seen Hauser go to town as various, thick-skulled Bubbas (“I, Tonya,” “BlacKkKlansman”). Here, in the later scenes with Bates (affecting and effective), he’s allowed to flower as an actor. Jewell’s heartache and ultimate exoneration gives Hauser a lot with which to work, and Bates and Rockwell are rock-solid scene partners. After the wobbly vagaries of “The Mule” and “The 15:17 to Paris,” the best of “Richard Jewell” is easily the best work Eastwood has done in a while.
What the media and the FBI actually did, in real life, was bad enough; in “Richard Jewell,” even the true or true-ish events have a way of feeling like fake dramatizations of fake news and institutional failures. Trump’s enemies, the press and the government, are this movie’s enemies. The building blocks are there in what happened to Jewell in real life. Eastwood can’t resist adding extra relish; in one shot of the Journal-Constitution newsroom, when Scruggs gets a round of applause from her fellow jackals, the camera lingers and lingers on Wilde’s satanic glee.
Working for the second time with a first-rate cinematographer, Yves Belanger, Eastwood keeps the setups neat and square and the emotional terrain clear and blunt. He neither glamorizes nor suffocates the circumstances of these people. Hauser, Bates and Rockwell, along with Nina Arianda’s deft, witty portrayal of lawyer Bryant’s assistant and future wife, humanize the material, even though there’s a lot missing. There’s no mention of Jewell’s marriage, or any sense of how and why Bobi’s two marriages broke down. This isn’t a character study. It’s good and evil: good people vs. evil institutions throwing salt in the wounds suffered by the salt of the earth.
The project was in development well before the political twist of 2016. Early on, “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass, a left-leaning progressive, planned to make it. As with Eastwood’s “Sully,” along with many other Eastwood pictures, “Richard Jewell” stands up for the old-fashioned, law-and-order, God-and-country white male, under siege and undercut by bureaucratic idiocy and enemies of the people. In the spirit of Eastwood’s biggest hit to date, “American Sniper,” “Richard Jewell” isn’t interested in a multifaceted or fully truthful depiction of its battle-tested survivor. The battle, for Jewell, (who died in 2007, from various health crises) was on the home front. The enemy was us. The actors transcend the simplifications, and make Eastwood’s 38th feature behind the camera something worth arguing about.
MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images)
Running time: 2:11
Opens: Thursday evening, Dec. 12