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Guilty until proven innocent – ‘Richard Jewell’

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Telling true stories via movies has always been complicated. On the one hand, when one hears those words – “true story” – one has certain expectations that the events portrayed actually happened. On the other hand, the telling of stories should allow for some creative flexibility for the storyteller – these are dramatizations, not documentaries.

A movie like Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is an apt representation of the myriad gray areas that come with representing real people and their stories on screen. The story of the titular Jewell – the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb during the Atlanta Olympics and saved hundreds, only to become a very public person of interest regarding the planting of that same bomb – is a complicated one; he was a very flawed man who was treated very badly largely because of those same flaws.

Jewell is the sort of man to whom Eastwood gravitates and the sort of uniquely American story that he greatly enjoys telling. It’s also problematic in its way, with some challenging the veracity of certain portrayals. It’s an incomplete portrait of an imperfect man.

In 1986, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, “Late Night”) is working as a supply clerk at the Small Business Association in Atlanta. His dream is to work in law enforcement, though he struggles to figure out the appropriate way to pursue that dream. It’s there that he meets and befriends (sort of) Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, “Jojo Rabbit”), a fiery-tempered lawyer who works for the SBA. Jewell leaves the job, on his way to what he believes to be his calling.

Ten years later, he’s a security guard on a small college campus, the subject of numerous complaints regarding odd and inappropriate behavior. He gets fired from that gig, but he’s in luck – the Olympics are coming to Atlanta and security personnel are in high demand.

One night at Centennial Park, while trying to break up a group of rowdy drunks, Jewell sees an unattended backpack and has it called in, despite the on-scene policemen advising him that it’s nothing. But it’s something, all right – a big something.

A bomb.

Jewell and the rest of the personnel on-scene do their best to clear the area; when the bomb goes off, many are hurt and two are killed, but his actions save a lot more than that.

There are those who question Jewell’s account. Specifically, FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm, “Lucy in the Sky”), who suspects that Jewell – who fits the profile of the supposed “hero bomber” – might have done this himself and begins an investigation. Where things spiral out of control is when Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Karen Skruggs (Olivia Wilde, “Life Itself”) coerces a name out of Agent Shaw using some unsavory and less than ethical means. She writes the story and runs it, outing Jewell as a person of interest.

The story explodes, leaving Jewell with no choice but to hole up in the house he shares with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates, “The Highwaymen”) and call the one person he knows who might be able to help him – Watson Bryant.

Richard Jewell is an innocent man that everyone believes to be guilty. The FBI continues to push the investigation, seizing on the information that fits their narrative and ignoring that which doesn’t. The media is in a feeding frenzy, stirred by its own increasingly inflammatory and speculative stories. The only people he can trust are his mother and his lawyer – and it may be that not even his actual innocence can protect him.

“Richard Jewell” is very much a Clint Eastwood film. It moves slowly, with the same of vague shagginess that Eastwood’s minimalist attitude toward takes, but it’s undeniably compelling. There is nothing that will make him hurry, for better or worse; this one is about 15 minutes too long, due almost entirely to glacial pacing. But that’s not really a complaint, per se. This is the sort of traditionally-crafted storytelling that has always been Eastwood’s forte; you know what you’re getting when you sit down to watch his work.

As for the controversy surrounding the film, well – those people aren’t wrong. The outrage regarding the use of Karen Skruggs to perpetuate the unfounded notion that female journalists routinely sleep with sources for info is well-warranted; even someone like myself who exists tangentially to real journalists knows that it’s a bunch of contrived nonsense. At best, it’s a poor and thoughtless choice. At worst, it’s a deliberate and thoughtful one.

That aside, it’s tough to argue against the quality of performance being put forward here – particularly at the top. Hauser is a mesmerizing actor to watch, the sort of physical presence that Hollywood usually allows only on the margins. The subtlety of his performance set against the undeniable size of his physicality is a dynamite combination; simply incredible. Sam Rockwell is excellent, as Sam Rockwell always is – he endows Watson Bryant with an irascibility that moves all the way through unlikeable and comes out the other side. Kathy Bates earns the early awards attention she’s been getting, giving us a moving portrait of a mother left helpless, unable to save her son.

On the other hand, Hamm and Wilde both go a little too hard. It sounds counterintuitive, but they both go for it so much that they actually flatten themselves out. There’s a little too much mustache-twirling from both of them – though that may be a feature and not a bug, depending on who you ask.

“Richard Jewell” recounts a true story, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story – ironic, since the difference between the two is a fundamental theme of the film. Still, one can’t deny the craft of the film, nor can one overpraise the lead performances from Hauser, Rockwell and Bates. Regardless of which parts of the tale are tall or true, it’s a tale well-told.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 December 2019 08:28


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