Richard Jewell Review
Clint Eastwood’s films have long subverted the ideals of American heroism, from his 1992 best picture winner Unforgiven picking apart the mythical vision of the Western, to 2008’s Gran Torino added new depth to an aged anti-hero not too dissimilar to a grizzled, retired Harry Callahan. Amazingly, at 89 years old, Eastwood is only getting more experimental with how he dissects the concept of the American hero, at ways that are often intriguingly at odds with the public perception of him as a ‘Murica first Republican.
Take 2018’s 15:17 to Paris. Although initially written off as an inert, stodgily acted drama (with the director’s preference to only shoot a couple of takes per scene cited as a reason for its wooden qualities), it’s actually a refreshing antithesis to his earlier box office hit American Sniper. That movie deified Chris Kyle in the eyes of right-leaning audiences, mythologising his process on the front lines of the army, whereas 15:17 instead fixated on the dull process of the character’s European holiday - the terrorist attack they helped stop proving to be an anomaly in a mumblecore, gelato-heavy travelogue.
Richard Jewell may be a significantly more mainstream proposition than 15:17 to Paris, but it’s still a perfect platform for Eastwood to once again fixate on subverting the very idea of an American hero. Jewell, played here by Paul Walter Hauser, is depicted very much as a jobsworth, whose obsessive attention to detail may save the day - but very frequently rubs everybody else up the wrong way. He isn’t the sort of man who easily fits the mould of a hero, and Eastwood takes delight in deconstructing just what it means to be one, and how our unconscious biases as to what a hero truly is cost an innocent man his reputation.
For those of you unfamiliar with the true story, Richard Jewell found a bomb during an outdoor concert at the start of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, getting the authorities to evacuate the area. He was initially hailed as a hero, but as the film tells it, the FBI were notified by one of his former employers that his character was suspicious, bending the rules to keep arrests high - creating the impression of a man who planted a bomb entirely because he wanted to be seen to save the day. Journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) picks up this story, and Jewell goes from hero to villain in the blink of an eye. Turning to his old employer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) for help, he tries to clear his name against a media backlash, and an FBI investigation that doesn’t care to search for other suspects.
Once again, on paper, Richard Jewell appears to play directly into Eastwood’s own politics. This is a takedown of the supposed “fake news media”, and Billy Ray’s screenplay veers into problematic territory in its depiction of journalist Scruggs as heartless, and getting her stories exclusively by sleeping with sources. If you overlook this one element, which Wilde manages to save by playing as high camp (as tonally ill fitting as that may be), then Richard Jewell is far more nuanced in how it depicts spiralling media insanity, never connecting the dots to tie it to any political argument. In fact, we’ve now arrived at the stage where both sides of the political divide could claim it as their own - I expect, by the time you’re reading this review upon its UK release, there will be several think pieces comparing the media’s treatment of Jewell to that of Jeremy Corbyn.
As with many of Eastwood’s films, the real selling point is the performances he manages to get from his cast. Shortly after doing career worst work in Jojo Rabbit, Sam Rockwell manages to get out of his post-Three Billboards... typecasting stage to play Jewell’s downtrodden lawyer. It’s revelatory in a similar way, stripped of the quirks that defined his earlier “good guy” roles, and should be receiving more praise for just how grounded it is, within a filmography where he frequently goes over the top.
But it’s Paul Walter Hauser who steals the show. This project has been circling around Hollywood for years, with the most recent incarnation starring Jonah Hill (to be directed by Paul Greengrass), but it’s Hauser’s lack of A-list baggage that makes it so effective. He’s a recognisably flawed man being slowly, silently pushed to breaking point by the speculation of the wider world. He nails the comedic quirks, but it’s the devastating domestic moments that linger on the memory - no other actor has managed to find pathos in a scene involving eating a donut.
Richard Jewell is released in UK cinemas on 31st January 2020