Since his earliest screen performances in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood has seemed captured by the idea of the ‘American hero’. In Richard Jewell, he seeks to explore what kind of a person can be a hero and how our preconceptions about an individual shape our feelings towards them.
Eastwood’s latest, written by Billy Ray, is based on the true story of the title character. Working as a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Jewell was responsible for discovering a pipe bomb in Centennial Olympic Park that later killed two people and injured 111 more. Jewell was subjected to an invasive investigation and intense media scrutiny when he emerged as the FBI’s chief suspect in the case, despite his role in preventing additional casualties.
As portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser, Jewell is the antithesis of a typical hero. In the film’s opening sequence he is shown struggling to keep a job, having been fired as the sheriff’s deputy and living alone with his mother Bobi. Although obviously good-hearted, his zealous approach to law enforcement while working as a college campus security guard is indicative of his broader character.
Hauser is fantastic and avoids turning the character into a caricature, generating incredible pathos. In a similar manner, Kathy Bates brings intense humanity to her role as Bobi Jewell. The relationship between mother and son feels completely real and provides some tender moments throughout the film.
Ray’s script and Eastwood’s direction are filled with righteous fury. Once they have identified Jewell as a particular type of person, the FBI has no issue with manipulating, denigrating and publicly humiliating him on that basis. Watching this character who should undoubtedly be celebrated for his heroism be treated in such a way, it is impossible not to feel this anger too.
The third in a trio of great performances is Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant. His cynical nature is the polar opposite of Jewell’s deferential attitude to the authorities and Rockwell is excellent at directing a passionate rage against FBI agents and journalists alike. Aside from this, however, he is perhaps the only character in the film who treats Jewell with dignity and respect and, accordingly, the only one not taken in by the media hysteria.
Controversy arose in the wake of the film’s release over the portrayal of the late journalist Kathy Scruggs. As portrayed by Olivia Wilde, it is implied that Scruggs used sex to acquire information from FBI agents. While the filmmakers have explained that this was a dramatic contrivance, it’s disappointing how such experienced individuals have reinforced a misogynistic trope about female journalists.
Richard Jewell is a flawed but compelling character study that tells the story of an ordinary man who saves hundreds of lives and has his life torn apart as a consequence. In the process, it encourages us to think seriously about what makes a hero and whether such a thing actually exists.