Richard Jewell: Observe and Report, by David Bax
Between his eye-catching supporting turn in I, Tonya in 2017 and his lead role in Clint Eastwood’s latest, Richard Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser is already developing a sort of character type. Both of these men are real people who lived on delusions of grandeur and have since died. But Eastwood is not, despite appearances, out to glorify or eulogize Richard Jewell. He’s come instead to eviscerate the forces that made the man infamous to begin with.
Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (adapting Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article) take their time getting to the events of July 27, 1996, when a homemade bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the Olympic games. First we meet Jewell as a low-level government office worker where he encounters idiosyncratic attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who will later be called on to defend Richard. When we catch up again years later, Jewell’s being fired from his job as a college campus security guard for abusing his authority. This sudden unemployment puts him in a position to work security at the Olympics, where he is the first to discover the suspicious package and helps start to clear the area before it explodes. Initially hailed as a hero, he soon becomes the lead suspect in the federal investigation into the bombing as well as a media punching bag. Eastwood relates all of this with a focus on verisimilitude, if not in regards to characterization (as you may have heard), at least in regards to time and place, down to the Confederate flags.
Another thing Richard Jewell has in common with I, Tonya is an often surprisingly comedic take on largely serious real world events. The relationship between Jewell and his mother (Kathy Bates) is just on reality’s side of a sitcom. And Jewell’s eagerness to help the law enforcement officials he so desires to emulate, even when it’s him they’re investigating, is as hilarious as it is tragic.
Eastwood intends us to choke on our laughter, though, as he can’t hide his conservative bitterness toward societal institutions. Out here in the real world, I may not share his cynicism when it comes to journalism but I do share his apparent distrust of cops (Watson warns Jewell not to turn into an asshole when he gets a badge yet the brief glimpse of him working at the college proves he did just that). When those two giants of the establishment, press and police, work together to destroy Jewell’s life, the movie as powerfully deflating in its irony as the best Twilight Zone episodes. Richard Jewell is, at its core, the story of a man who was foolish enough to believe in the governing structures of the nation he loves and who pays dearly for it. In essence, it is the counterpoint to Eastwood’s Sully. That movie was about how being good and doing the right thing can be quietly world-changing. Here, doing what you’re supposed to do won’t help you because the system is hostile to goodness.
That’s because goodness is boring, the least useful a thing can be in a world powered by distraction. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, as hundreds are in need of medical assistance, a reporter (Olivia Wilde) prays to God that whoever committed this awful act is “interesting.” Eastwood focuses his ire on the bear-baiting ring that is television news. Before becoming a suspect, Jewell is interviewed by Katie Couric. After, he’s interviewed by FBI agents (Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez). Eastwood and cinematographer Yves Bélanger show us both interactions on monitors, with Jewell as eager to be viewed as his audience is to view him. The line between reality and entertainment is blurred when a scene of Bryant investigating the evidence against his client is cut back and forth with footage of Michael Johnson competing in an Olympic track event. Perhaps Eastwood is asking us which is the main event and which is the sideshow.
If that’s his question, he’s asking it laconically, in the method of a deceptively folksy orator. Eastwood’s style remains unhurried but never languorous. Richard Jewell may never quicken its pace but it’s as insistent and as angry as anything Eastwood has ever made.