By John H. Foote
To begin, in this film in which Eastwood once again explores an underdog railing against authority, the nearly ninety-year-old two-time Oscar-winning Best Director has made a very good film, but not one that will be ever thought of as being among his greatest. That is not a putdown, just a fact. As good as Richard Jewell might be, it is simply not in the same league as Bird (1988), his western masterpiece Unforgiven (1992), A Perfect World (1993), Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and American Sniper (2014). Both J. Edgar (2011) and Sully (2016) could be grouped in that list of films as well, and though stronger than Richard Jewell, neither really compares to the aforementioned pictures.
Do you remember how planted the backpack armed with explosives at the 1996 Atlanta, Olympics? No not likely. Who does?
Many believed the FBI and press, that Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard planted the bomb which did explode, killing two, injuring others. Jewell found the backpack, called the FBI and was for a brief day or two, a hero. But when the local paper learned the FBI had targeted Jewell as a suspect, they ran with the story, doing what CNN considered, but chose not to wait. Jewell’s life was turned upside down with the accusation that he was a traitor, and he was scorned publicly. I suppose he was an easy target, overweight, unexceptional in every way, over thirty and still living with his mother, of course, he had time to be a terrorist, he must be seething with anger!!
Bewildered, stunned, in disbelief of what has taken place, Jewell cannot quite comprehend what is being said and written about him. His mother, portrayed with earnest ferocity by the incomparable Kathy Bates, defends him, boldly calling out his accusers. And a young lawyer comes forward, beautifully portrayed by Sam Rockwell, who not only believes him but finds himself liking the lonely man.
Questions are raised. Did the investigating FBI agent, portrayed by Jon Hamm have sex with an attractive young reporter, played by her to get inside information? Are the FBI and media equally responsible for bringing this man’s life to ruin? What responsibility does the media have to report the absolute truth rather than speculation, and should they apologize with the same fervour they brought him down insisting he was a criminal.
Like a deer caught on a country road, it’s eyes wide not really seeing what is happening that is Jewell, portrayed by Hauser best known as the incompetent bodyguard in I, Tonya (2017). Though grounded here, honest, taught, to tell the truth, never to lie, he cannot figure out why the FBI thinks he is guilty. Hauser is excellent as Jewell, capturing the essence of a decent, but sometimes unfortunate, unlucky guy who becomes, through hysteria, a target.
Sam Rockwell gives a tremendously forceful performance free of tricks. This guy is grounded, shocked at what has transpired and cannot wait to nail those responsible for it all. It is not a case of nailing someone in power, he is genuinely compassionate to what they have done to Jewell and his life because he knows the powers the be had a choice, and went with cruelty. Rockwell could be nominated for his third consecutive Academy Award, but it is unlikely given the extraordinary competition in the category.
Eastwood as always stands back, aims his camera and allows truth to happen. His films reflect society for good and bad, and here we see the best and worst of both. His gentle guidance of his actors is why they love him, why people say yes without reading the script. I mean, it’s Clint calling.
Oh, and who planted the bomb? Not Richard Jewell, who really was a hero.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.