Review: Richard Jewell

Though Clint Eastwood’s oft-discussed tendency to inject his personal cultural prejudices into his movies seems to become more pronounced with age, he is more likely to get away with that proclivity in films where he also stars, probably because the director’s work as an actor, particularly in the Dirty Harry series, provided his entire public persona with an acceptable facade of conservative independence that comes with its own integrity. Whether you appreciate or abhor his politics, Eastwood is a known entity, and a comfortably familiar one, so wherein presentations such as American Sniper and 15:17 to Paris can come across as reactionary statements, equally skewed movies like The Mule and El Torino feel more like films thanks to Eastwood’s curmudgeonly lead characters. You take them at face value as entertainment rather than as veiled attempts at libertarian persuasion.

Richard Jewell, Eastwood’s highly reductive retelling of the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and its aftermath, doesn’t feature Eastwood the actor, and it’s difficult to think of any role in the movie that he could have filled, but the script’s (by Billy Ray) obviously polemical notes are undercut by a fast-paced, intensive style that has more in common with the sort of leftish intentions attributable to the kind of 70s movies that represent the antithesis of Eastwood’s later work. In fact, the main villain in Richard Jewell is the FBI, meaning supreme law enforcement, which also often played the bete noire in those 70s movies. The language of Hollywood hasn’t changed in the intervening years, only our perspective when it comes to authority. In the 70s, the bad guys were “the establishment,” while now it’s “big government.” The difference is notable, and worthy of greater scrutiny than a movie review can supply, but in the end Eastwood is playing on the viewer’s feelings with an old-fashioned sense of drama: Finding sympathy with a victim.

That victim is the title character, played by Paul Walter Hauser, a wannabe cop who has to settle for being a security guard because of certain peculiar personality traits that seem to have gotten him dismissed from one police department. Jewell’s annoyingly ingratiating side is exacerbated by a somewhat Manichean view of society. Though he loves his mama, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and has a pretty good grasp of what the Constitution means, he also believes that authority should be given the benefit of the doubt. He sees the police, the most direct arbiters of authority, as always being in the right by default. He’s overzealous about policing dorm students in his job as campus security. At the same time, his obsession with belonging to this tribe spurs his ambitions. Even as a security guard hired to just walk around Centennial Olympic Park, where various Games-related public events take place, he takes his orders seriously, which is why he was the person who saw what looked like a bomb stuffed underneath some scaffolding and, contrary to his superiors’ apathetic reaction, had the area cleared. Though two people were killed in the explosion, many more might have died if it weren’t for Jewell’s actions.

At first he’s a hero and a humble one, but the FBI, represented here by a suspiciously handsome and arrogant agent named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the media in the form of an equally arrogant and opportunistic newspaper reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), separately and together suspect that Jewell planted the bomb himself in order to play the hero in the end. To them, with his apparent insecurities and lack of social skills, Jewell fits the profile of someone who seeks attention, and while Jewell is certainly awkward and slow to pick up on others’ take on him, it’s clear by the cliches forced upon Hamm and Wilde that Eastwood sees them as caricatures of all that’s wrong with, respectively, government power and the media, which in this case isn’t nominally left wing but certainly irresponsible. Consequently, the public mood against Jewell shifts 180 degrees when he is outed as a suspect, though until it becomes too much for him Jewell retains his respect for the FBI, because he aspires to be part of such a fraternity.

The hero of the movie, however, is Sam Rockwell’s Watson Bryant, Jewell’s defense attorney, who scans as slick operator but one who has already recognized Jewell’s intrinsic decency and can see the venality of Shaw’s and Scruggs’ actions. So the Manichean battle is joined, and Eastwood has a fine old time exploring the coldness of the government’s tactics to break Jewell, not to mention the media’s cynical indifference to fairness. In that regard, Richard Jewell is something of a minor masterpiece, straightforward in its insistence on due process while brutally efficient in its use of suspense and dramatic development. It’s as if Clint were in the movie himself.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Richard Jewell home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Claire Folger

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