By John Hanlon
In the span of only a few days, Richard Jewell went from being a media-hailed hero to being a suspected terrorist. A security guard in Atlanta, Jewell gained prominence worldwide for discovering a bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. A few days later though, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started treating Jewell as a suspect in the bombing and the media followed suit, treating Jewell as a pariah.
Director Clint Eastwood focuses in on this controversial story in his drama Richard Jewell, which is now available on Blu-Ray.
Over the past few years, Eastwood has brought several true stories to the big screen. In The Mule (2018), he told the story of an older man who smuggled drugs across the country. Before then, Eastwood focused his attention on three Americans who helped prevent a train bombing (The 15:17 to Paris), a heroic pilot who safely landed a malfunctioning plane on the Hudson River after a horrific incident (Sully) and a military man known for his sniping skills (American Sniper).
Of all of those films, Sully seems the most similar to Richard Jewell. Both features show heroic figures battling against critics who question their decisions. In Sully, officials question whether or not the pilot needed to make an emergency landing. In Richard Jewell, the FBI and the media question the motivations of a man who discovered a deadly bomb. While Sully’s critics were less prominent though, the critics of Richard Jewell changed the national perception of the hero.
Paul Walter Hauser stars in the film as Richard Jewell, a naïve but optimistic office employee, who wants to be in law enforcement. He befriends attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) at a law firm. Years later, Jewell gets a job working security at the 1996 Olympics.
It’s at the Olympics that Jewell spots a suspicious bag. After officers realize the bag’s contents, they move crowds away from the area. After the bomb explodes, Jewell gets lionized by the media for helping save lives but after a local newspaper fingers Jewell as a potential suspect, Jewell’s life is turned upside down.
Adapted from the article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell (and the book The Suspect), Eastwood’s feature attempts to capture the hectic and frenzied world that Jewell found himself in after the bombing. Even though Jewell is the main character here, Eastwood efficiently builds a world around him. Supporting characters include FBI agents Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez), Jewell’s overwhelmed mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) and journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).
The film’s depiction of Scruggs — as a reporter who slept with some of her sources — led to some controversy that does undercut the film’s gripping message. In a feature that attempts to dismantle the media’s inaccurate portrayal of Jewell, it’s disconcerting that another key figure in the drama is portrayed so unfairly. Admittedly, the accusations against Jewell and the ones against Scruggs aren’t on the same level but one would’ve hoped that the script by Billy Ray would’ve been more focused on the facts on the ground.
Despite that, Wilde and all of the supporting players do quality work here but it’s Bates who truly shines in some of the feature’s most captivating and heartbreaking sequences. The character actress shows a vulnerability here that hints at the personal toll that the Jewells went through when the media and the FBI turned its harsh attention on them.
Although some of the characters aren’t given the three-dimensional personalities they deserve (including Scruggs), the script does establish the situation well-enough for viewers to appreciate how Jewell’s name was tarnished during this difficult time. Before the bombing, Jewell had some character flaws — the feature doesn’t hide those — and some of the criticisms he faced before the bombing do come back to haunt him when he tries to clear his name. Additionally, the feature shows how Jewell’s respect for police hindered his ability to battle the accusations as forcefully as he should have.
Despite its issues, Richard Jewell is a compelling and relevant feature that shows how an accusation — as baseless as it is — can help define a person’s life. Richard Jewell, who passed away a few years ago, was an American hero, whose life was forever changed by the FBI and the media. It’s important to remember that and this feature does just that.
Blu-Ray Special Features: The Blu-Ray contains two short featurettes. The brief Real Story of Richard Jewell focuses on the real events depicted in the film. The Making of Richard Jewell provides a few great behind-the-scenes tidbits about the production of the film. From the film’s use of a designer who previously worked on the design for the real Centennial Park (the site of the bombing) to the 1990s look of the footage and clothes, this featurette nicely captures Eastwood’s drive for authenticity.