There is a powerful underdog story at the core of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell.’ With Eastwood’s masterful direction, taking its time to set up the events on this material “based on a true story” which is based on the article by Marie Brenner and a book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen and then turned into a screenplay by Billy Ray, the film carefully sets up our lead character as he goes up against two powerful institutions: the FBI and the media.
Set during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia, security guard Richard Jewell becomes a hero after he saves hundreds of lives from a bomb explosion. But when an aggressive reporter, Kathy Scruggs, irresponsibly publishes an article from a tip by the FBI that puts suspicion on Jewell, the security guard’s life turns upside-down as he is vilified by the media and the people of his community.
As with many Clint Eastwood films, he takes his time to really build this world and to fully realise Richard Jewell. Because Jewell is not without his faults. Depicted as a simple-minded and very straightforward individual, Jewell dreams of becoming a law enforcement officer. He was removed from his job at the police force and some security positions because he took his job too seriously, even going out of bounds and beyond the scope of his work just to enforce the law.
Doubled with the wonderfully committed performance by Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell’s love for what he does creates a fulcrum that allows the believable, and ultimately frustrating, turn of events as Jewell is unjustly turned into a villain by the media.
Despite the slow, careful set up that Eastwood creates for the film first act, he is economical in his storytelling, pushing the story immediately to the necessary beats of the second and third act when the media turns on him. He holds back on the drama, only releasing it at opportune moments and giving it to Kathy Bates, who plays Richard Jewell’s mother, Sam Rockwell, who plays his attorney, and Paul Walter Hauser himself, when it finally sinks in what is happening to him.
What is underlined, most of all in this film, is the irresponsible and hasty conclusions made by the FBI and the media, most especially Kathy Scruggs, who delivered the first blow that caused all the other media outlets to follow through. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray, turns the camera completely on Richard Jewell’s side and, in the process, demonizes Scruggs (played by a bristling and effective Olivia Wilde). She is shown as a hostile and abrasive character and only hungry for the scoop. She is portrayed as the kind of person who will trade sex for a story she can print and will harrass people for a quote.
And it’s telling that many people have come to her defence since the movie had come out as she has passed and cannot defend herself.
And this is the rub with Richard Jewell. Again, it’s a well-made movie that really leads you into this mad world of media hype and frenzy. It is about how irresponsible choices made by powerful institutions can destroy a man and his reputation. Sitting through the film, we are brought into the world of Richard Jewell and the tragedy of his story during this ordeal and it competently brings us to a catharsis when the events unfold the way that they do and delivers an underdog story in the way that a master director like Clint Eastwood can.
But regardless of the inexcusable actions of the FBI and the media in this story, one must also be careful to not inflict the same damage that you are calling out.