By Stephen Whitty
You can’t judge a kook by his cover.
That’s the lesson of Richard Jewell, the true story of the security guard who pointed cops to a suspicious package at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — a package that later exploded. Jewell was hailed as a hero who’d helped save lives.
Then people took a second look. And saw a chubby, eccentric loner who lived with his mom. Who played violent video games, wore camo and collected guns. Who so desperately wanted to be a cop that he’d once impersonated one.
And instead of a hero, people saw a suspect.
Except Jewell didn’t do it. And the rush to judgment, by the FBI and the media and most of America, is at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s coldly critical drama.
Eastwood is one of Hollywood’s few conservative filmmakers, and coming out during this impeachment winter, Richard Jewell is sure to be picked over for political messages.
Certainly, the FBI here, personified by Jon Hamm’s arrogant agent, is more concerned with its own hotshot image than with getting it right. And the media — boiled down to Olivia Wilde’s sleep-with-any-source, burn-any-bridge reporter — have the morals of a maggot.
But there’s still a sobering and nonpartisan message — particularly if you’re old enough to remember the bombing, and how quickly everyone rushed to judgement.
Jewell was, definitely, a little odd — a rigidly righteous rent-a-cop, a Paul Blart without the humor. Of course everyone suspected him.
But, the movie asks, is it a crime to live with your mom? To play video games? Wondering if Jewell belongs to any “extremist” groups, his worried lawyer asks him if he’s a member of the NRA.
“Is that an extremist group?” a shocked Jewell asks.
But Jewell — played with an almost bovine calm by Paul Walter Hauser — soon finds himself in a world where nothing, and no one, can be trusted. Friends come to dinner, wearing wires. FBI agents try to trick him into confessions.
Luckily he has his mom, played by the indomitable Kathy Bates, on his side. And an anti-establishment, shorts-and-sandals lawyer, played by the endlessly watchable Sam Rockwell, completely on his side.
Leaning on them, Jewell manages to survive the attacks on his character. And slowly wakes from his own, cluelessly naive attitude to understand his lawyer’s own hard truth: Law enforcement, and the media, is not there to be your friends.
There’s some smart, if cynical, honesty in that realization, and Eastwood’s film arrives there through his own typically straightforward storytelling and unfussy style.
Still, its portrayal of Wilde’s sleazy journalist character, who is based on a real woman who is now dead, identified in the film by name, is ugly and exaggerated and not really supported by the facts. Which is not only unfair, but in the film’s rush to just make things easy and interesting, very odd.
Because, after all, isn’t that what the movie says we shouldn’t have done to Richard Jewell?
Richard Jewell is available On Demand and on DVD beginning March 17. check your cable system for availability