Clint Eastwood has long been attracted to everyday heroes burdened by institutional power (you can see it as far back as ‘Dirty Harry’). Continuing this libertarian streak, the director’s latest honors Richard Jewell, the security guard who cleared most of a crowd when he discovered fatal explosives at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. For this act, he saw his life turned into a living hell when the FBI – which he idolised – mistakenly targeted him as the perpetrator. Resurrecting his sturdy cinematic prose after recent fiascos like ‘The 15:17 to Paris’, Eastwood competently dramatises the underdog’s true tale with a patient, straightforward style akin to ‘Sully’ and ‘Changeling’, but he falls short on nuance.
Worlds removed from his thuggish but dim bodyguard in ‘I, Tonya’, the terrific Paul Walter Hauser disappears into the role of the affable, gun-hoarding ex-cop. Working a series of gigs until a crucial one places him at the pivotal Centennial Olympic Park, his amicably awkward Jewell flaunts an overkill sense of duty that annoys almost everyone except his proud, doting mother (a poignant Kathy Bates, delivering a lived-in performance that swells in the final act). Tipped off by an inept FBI agent (Jon Hamm), an opportunistic reporter (Olivia Wilde) kicks off a media circus after publishing negative speculation on Jewell, who then hires Sam Rockwell’s quixotic lawyer to clear his name. Gradually, Eastwood builds a heartwarming, familial camaraderie between client and attorney.
While it’s reasonable to criticise the press and law enforcement in these events, Billy Ray’s script (drawing on a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner) relishes the opportunity irresponsibly, especially in its mean and unflattering portrayal of Wilde’s journalist as a crazy-eyed scrounger who trades sex for a scoop (an unverified detail).
Elsewhere, Eastwood plays to his strengths better, orchestrating clean set-pieces of closely observed details in suffocating living rooms and dynamic concert arenas alike, while maintaining a sombre mood throughout. (The vibe is well supported by an expressive, piano-heavy score by Arturo Sandoval.) Richard Jewell’s greatest feat is the generous emphasis it places on its Forrest Gump-like do-gooder’s complex sense of humanity; if only there were more of that to spread around to the other characters.