Rating: (2.5 stars)
In “Richard Jewell,” a movie about the security guard who found what’s known as the Centennial Park bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was subsequently falsely implicated in planting it, the villains are more starkly delineated than the heroes. The bad guys are the government, represented by an overzealous, unscrupulous FBI agent (Jon Hamm), and the media, represented by a sleazy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Olivia Wilde), who wrote a story identifying Jewell as the subject of the FBI’s investigation.
It’s the Trump-iest movie you’ve ever seen, set a full 20 years before the election of the famously press-bashing, Deep State-loathing president.
That’s perhaps no surprise, coming from director Clint Eastwood, who has professed his admiration for Trump. But it does seem a little weird from the pen of screenwriter Billy Bay, whose “Shattered Glass,” while detailing the journalistic malpractice of disgraced magazine reporter Stephen Glass, at least respected the standards of the newsgathering profession. Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs is implied to have slept with Hamm’s Tom Shaw for information, and she gleefully celebrates her paper’s scoop by fist-pumping her way around the AJC newsroom.
There’s plenty of room for outrage over suspicions that fell on an innocent man, without resorting to demonizing reporters and law enforcement officers as caricatures of corruption.
On the other side is the title character, a nerdy, overweight rent-a-cop who, as the film opens, is about get fired from his campus security job at a local college for overly aggressive harassment of pot-smoking undergrads. Played by Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”) with a nuance and commitment that makes it seem like he was born for the part, Richard is mocked for his girth, for his large collection of guns and for his inability to tamp down his uncool, almost grandiose enthusiasm for “law enforcement,” as he constantly tells anyone who will listen.
Doth he protest his innocence too much?
Richard doesn’t look like a hero, but its opposite, as his eccentric attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is constantly reminding him: “All you’re guilty of right now is looking like the kind of guy who might set off a bomb,” Watson shouts at him, in frustration over Richard’s nervous, almost guilty demeanor. Hauser and Rockwell’s crackling energy make this movie hum, aided and abetted by Kathy Bates as Richard’s long-suffering mother, with whom he lives in a cramped apartment.
Hauser, as Richard, is absolutely superb: nebbishy, so solicitous of authority that he barely bothers to defend himself and seeming, at times, slightly dimwitted. As Watson, Rockwell often steals the spotlight, playing his client’s most ardent defender and, when called for, his most dismayed life coach, as Richard naively finds himself playing into the hands of his enemies again and again.
And make no mistake: the press and the law are depicted not just as Richard’s nemeses, but as the enemy of the people, pursuing manufactured agendas and cutting ethical corners. “Richard Jewell” isn’t so much a dispassionate look at the very real mistakes that were made by well-intentioned people as it is an indictment of entire institutions. It’s very nearly a second railroading — not of Jewell, but of his accusers.
Anchored by three top-notch performances in a story about the frightening possibility of false accusation, “Richard Jewell” is a handsomely made film. But coming as it does in 2019, its vilification of reporters and the feds is even scarier.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, including some sexual references, and brief bloody images. 131 minutes.