For those of us living right outside downtown Atlanta, few stories hit as close to home as the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. While the tragic event happened nearly 24 years ago, I find it impossible to walk through Centennial Olympic Park without thinking about the pipe bomb that killed two civilians and injured over 100 others. Following his recent trend of adapting real-life events to the big screen (“Sully,” “American Sniper”), legendary director Clint Eastwood shines a spotlight on misjudged security guard Richard Jewell, his lawyer and his mother in his latest film. Though “Richard Jewell” is a fine recounting of Jewell’s story elevated by a few phenomenal performances, the film does not have the same absorbing qualities as some of Eastwood’s recent flicks.
Good-natured and obedient Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) dreamed of becoming a police officer, but the best he could manage was a position running security at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. On the night of July 27, during a Kenny Rogers concert at Centennial Park, Jewell discovered a pipe bomb planted under a bench and helped evacuate the area. At first hailed as a hero for saving countless lives, Jewell’s life turned upside down when the media and FBI realized that Jewell fit the profile of a potential lone bomber. With press swarming his house and the FBI on his tail, Jewell recruited the help of attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to clear his name, preserve his mother Bobi’s (Kathy Bates) sanity and secure justice for himself.
The film starts off with 20 minutes of “meh” that doesn’t inspire much excitement or intrigue. We briefly learn how Jewell became friends with Bryant in 1986 (a strange way for the film to begin), and then fast forward 10 years to the events that conspired during the 1996 Olympics. Rather than delving into Jewell’s background or starting the film with some sort of captivating opening — as done in “Sully” — Eastwood casually drops us into Jewell’s life 10 years before the Atlanta Olympics. However, he doesn’t linger enough to give us a sense of Jewell’s background except for the fact that he was a lowly office supply worker. Even Eastwood’s recreation of the actual bombing somehow manages to lack the intensity and suspense it needs, which is sorely disappointing considering the story revolves around it.
Nonetheless, after the bomb explodes and Jewell becomes the No. 1 suspect, things begin to pick up steam. For one, Rockwell re-enters the film, and — as he did in 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — steals every scene. Rockwell’s chemistry with Hauser is outstanding, with Jewell as the bumbling victim and Bryant as his brash lawyer. Bryant is brazen and ruthless but also immensely likeable, which Rockwell portrays brilliantly. He also serves as the film’s comic relief, which is sorely needed in an intense film like “Richard Jewell.”
Hauser is the film’s greatest revelation as its titular character, giving an absolutely award-worthy performance. While certainly subtle, Hauser manages to capture immense depth and vulnerability in his portrayal of Jewell. The film never glorifies Jewell’s character; Eastwood acknowledges that he was an impulsive and flawed man. However, that only makes the audience sympathize with him more. Jewell’s monologue at the conclusion of the film to FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) particularly stands out, and Hauser’s delivery is breathtaking.
Despite these stellar performances (not to mention Bates’ heartbreaking portrait of Jewell’s mother), “Richard Jewell” is held back by some wonky editing and distasteful storytelling choices by Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray. First and foremost is the controversial decision to portray the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) as a journalist who used her sex appeal to get a scoop, despite information suggesting that it was fabricated. Whether true or not, Scruggs’ character and Wilde’s exaggerated performance doesn’t seem to fit in the overarching picture or add anything substantial to the film’s narrative. Also disappointing, Hamm’s antagonizing Agent Shaw is as one-note of a character as it gets, which is a shame considering Hamm’s talent and charm.
More importantly, Eastwood and Ray don’t actually prove anything with their storytelling. “Richard Jewell” is an important story, and it’s fantastic that more people will know and recognize Jewell’s name after this film. However, the film lacks exigence: the film’s primary message seems to be that the press and the FBI cannot be trusted, but that doesn’t reflect anything on Jewell himself. Not to mention, this theme has been beaten to a pulp in various multimedia pieces, from Eastwood’s own “Sully” to Netflix’s hit series “When They See Us.” There’s nothing particularly new or innovative about the film that distinguishes it from these superior works.
Overall, “Richard Jewell” has several brilliant performances that somewhat manage to rescue the film from a slow introduction and lackluster storytelling. If nothing else, the film is a star vehicle for Hauser and yet another showcase of Rockwell and Bates’ talent. Hopefully, the next time you walk through Centennial Olympic Park, you’ll think about the events of 1996 Olympics and remember Jewell’s heroism. I know that I certainly will.