Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the true events of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games bombing, Richard Jewell is a story I didn’t know much about until now. While it would have been news in ‘96, and a huge one in the USA, this was pre-Internet for most people, meaning information didn’t spread across the Globe in the same fashion that it does now. This is an important early point because while the manner of the ‘trial by media’ isn’t new to us in 2020, it certainly felt like Richard Jewell’s story could have been one today and, just as worryingly, still continues everywhere.
Based on the Vanity Fair article ‘American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell’ by Marie Brenner, and a screenplay from Billy Ray, Richard Jewell tells the real-life story of the everyday title character Jewell – astutely portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser. We’re introduced to his life and work as a security guard, shown that he’s spent his life wanting to protect people and this is reflected in the types of jobs he takes, such as University campus security. Despite this knowledge, it’s also revealed that sometimes his over-eagerness for the enforcement side has got him into minor trouble, as he’d occasionally gone beyond his jurisdiction, such as pulling people over as if he was an actual police officer.
However, even early on, Richard doesn’t appear to be cruel or power-hungry, he’s more knowledgeable and passionate about doing a good job. When the Olympics arrive in Atlanta in 1996, he takes another security guard role and after watching the crowds, discovers a suspicious bag at the bottom of the media tower. Quickly alerting the Police, they examine the backpack and discover a live bomb inside and start to clear the park, but before they get everyone away, the bomb explodes.
In the aftermath, he’s initially sold as a hero for saving lives but within almost the same instant, the dubious decisions in his past are discovered and it’s revealed that the FBI are already questioning his motives, and he becomes a suspect. From this point, and in a frenzy between law enforcement and the media, the story and reports begin to mix up, half-truths become facts and he’s seemingly guilty before being proven innocent, especially in a situation before CCTV.
While, let’s be honest, this doesn’t really feel like a time to feel concern for white law enforcement in the States, there’s humanity at play here. Richard Jewell is a prime example of how toxic both the US media and justice system can work against you, before anything has even happened, whatever your race or colour if you’re profiled. It’s also about a human being, and how anyone can easily be misled by those in power, something we all know a lot more about each day right now, especially if you’re educating yourself.
As Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser was reportedly seen by Eastwood as the perfect fit for this role, I didn’t know the story nor the actor, but having learned more along the way, it seems like he’s not only a dead-ringer but also eager to show the character fairly and intuitively. He’s also the real everyman, with genuine compassion for his Mother and out to prove that he’s just who he is, even if he’s trying to help those trying to take him down.
Sam Rockwell co-stars as his real-life attorney, Watson Bryant, probably the only man who really knew Richard at that point, other than his Mother Bobi. Rockwell has dug out a strong case for these kind of supportive, honest roles in recent years and he doesn’t fail us at all this time. He’s the reality for Jewell’s nice guy and is paramount in focusing his mind and helping him to stop accidentally implementing him in a crime he didn’t commit.
Bobi Jewell, Richard’s mother, is played by Kathy Bates and she’s exceptional. Clearly representing a hard-working Mum and someone who clearly loves him deeply but is initially very shocked and almost shamed at the situation her son is in, and how the media are treating him. There’s an incredibly sensitive, tender moment between her and Richard at a crucial moment, and it’s heart-breaking as you feel their very deep, family love for each other. You’ve also got Jon Hamm as the somewhat shifty FBI agent Tom Shaw, who’s not going on much evidence but wants a conviction, and Olivia Wilde as an up and coming reporter, who’s willing to try anything to get the story. Both are strong roles within the narrative, but they’re not so easy to like as they’re a huge part of what happens to Richard.
Eastwood directs with a human touch, and my favourite of his since Gran Torino, breaking up between giving the actors time to display their natural talent and occasion archive-like footage of the time. This is still an important story, even now, and it’s incredibly well re-told alongside an outstanding performance from Paul Walter Hauser in the lead role.