Clint Eastwood has recently become fascinated at how one short moment can define the lives of some characters forever. Such was his focus in Sully (2016), with the miraculous safe landing of a plane in New York’s East River, or in his experimental The 15:17 to Paris (2018), which used the real men who staved off a terrorist attack on a train to renact their actions. His most recent film goes back to 1996 and the Atlanta Olympic Games bombing, focusing specifically on the unjust backlash that security guard Richard Jewel got from the FBI and media.
Richard Jewel (2019) follows the eponymous character (Paul Walter Hauser), a law and order-obsessed man who’s determination at his passion is almost his biggest fault. His over-the-top actions lead to his ouster as a Sheriff’s Deputy and later in a stint of security guard jobs. However, as he is hired for security in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, his passion to follow protocol are what led to the discovery of the bomb, and the beginning of an evacuation that probably saved hundreds of lives. The aftermath, however, pinned Jewel as the main suspect of the bomb, and the relentless FBI and media barrage that he suffered ended up nearly breaking him and his family.
Clint Eastwood as a director has always been fascinated with character studies, from his earlier successes: Million Dollar Baby (2004), Unforgiven (1992), and Mystic River (2003) to his more nationalistic-centered ones in American Sniper (2014) and The Mule (2018). Eastwood has always been adept at showcasing the regular folk amidst the glamour of history, it was his main attraction in his war films Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006); however, Eastwood’s recent trend of chest-thumping nationalist pieces have been pushing him further from his characters and seeming to enter a realm of politics that appear incredibly biased and diluted.
Richard Jewel feels like Eastwood’s most political piece, in that the director is incredibly one-sided in his narrative. His Jewel is pegged as saint whilst his adversaries are caricatured as moustache-twirling Disney villains. There was some particularly poor execution with reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who broke the initial story of Jewel as a main suspect. Scruggs is portrayed as a hysteric writer who is desperate for a scoop no matter its truth. This can very much represent some journalists, but her portrayal is so over the top that it made me laugh out loud at some points. The film shows her as a deceitful, overly emotional, and immoral person who seduces agents for scoops; the film even pegs her as a terrible writer who uses other reporters to do her work. Her character seemed like such a clear vendetta from Eastwood against the media and its treatment of Jewel, that it makes the objective view that the film might have searched for completely invalid.
This incredible black-and-white view of the event is, in fact, a detriment to its theme. It makes the actual complexities of the aftermath appear to be overly-simplistic. Richard Jewel could have been a fascinating look at how fear drives people to act irrationally and imprison those deemed to be the most obvious suspects. Such was the case in the United States following World War II with their Japanese internment camps and 9/11 with the Muslim population in New Jersey (and around other states as well). Richard Jewel tries to make a point about the injustice of character profiling, and yet this seems to fall flat when one thinks that the profiling of a white man in America is nothing compared to the unjust prejudice facing literally every other demographic in the country. As such the actual sad story of Richard Jewel and his exploitation are diluted by such unbalanced and sloppy filmmaking.
Despite the bad writing and execution, Eastwood is able to assemble an impressive cast. Walter Hauser had been shining in bit roles in I, Tonya (2017) and BlacKkKlansman (2018) in the past, but he shows in Richard Jewel that those past appearances were not lucky flashes, but instead a sign of an incredibly talented actor. Walter Hauser carries the weight of this film and is able to craft the seeming naivete and passion that Jewel had towards law enforcement with an endearing aura. The rest of the cast is rounded out with two very strong performances by Sam Rockwell as Jewel’s lawyer and Kathy Bates as his mother. Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde are stuck playing the villains in roles that could hardly be salvaged; thus their appearances are usually more embarrassing than informative to viewers.
In the end, Richard Jewel is a possible indication of the dangerous path that Eastwood is going down in his recent films; of a more biased view that is steering away from objective character studies that he had proven to be an expert at. The strong cast and break-out lead from Walter Hauser prove to make the film a bit more palatable, but the inconsistencies and flaws are too glaring to be looked over.