Since its initial announcement, Richard Jewell has lost a fair amount of bombast, from the changing of the more epic-sounding title The Ballad of Richard Jewell to the replacement of originally mooted stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill with Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively. Yet, this is, for the most part, a good thing. Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is a small, contained story, a tale of extraordinary injustice in a very ordinary setting, one in which quieter performances by character actors make a lot of difference.
Richard Jewell takes a true story from 1996, but it feels very of the current American political moment, as its title character faces scorn and oppression from the US news media and the FBI. Richard Jewell (Hauser) was a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whose keen eye for detail identified a bomb at the games, saving dozens of lives in the process. Yet, scrambling for answers (the real bomber wouldn’t be caught until six years later), the FBI, abetted by hasty reporting from the Atlanta City Journal, pinned the crime on Jewell, setting him up for a brutal trial by media.
Eastwood and writer Billy Ray make no bones about who their villains are here. As FBI agent Shaw, Jon Hamm gives a performance of such sneering ineptitude and corruption that he’d make an evil Disney stepmother blush, and his journalist counterpart Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) fares even worse. Scrugg’s characterisation is a genuinely uncomfortable misstep, a misogynist caricature of a floozy reporter who trades sex for information and Wilde rewards the writing with a terrible performance. That she took this role in the same year she directed the frenetically funny feminist fable Booksmart is mindboggling.
For its first hour, Richard Jewell is rather slow, but once the FBI investigation into Richard picks up steam, so too does the film around it, aided immensely by giving Rockwell more screentime. As the real estate lawyer who ended up representing Jewell, Rockwell is always the most interesting character on screen, and his well-meaning exasperation with Jewell provides reliable laughs. Though he has his almost panto-like villains, Eastwood is more cautious about giving us a hero. It’s easy to sympathise with Jewell during his infuriating ordeal – Hauser making an impressive step up to lead after some scene-stealing supporting performances – but he’s not always the best company to keep.
He’s an authoritarian weirdo who can’t help but worsen his situation with his hero-worship of law enforcement. The injustice he faces is absurd – the most basic police work should have exonerated him within a day instead of keeping him the prime suspect for months – but Eastwood is careful to avoid making him an outright martyr. This is too composed, calm, and collected a film for that. Eastwood’s unfussy style perfectly matches his content, the oppressive pokiness of all the offices and interrogations highlighted by a tight camera and desaturated colour scheme. Richard Jewell is an eraging and informative account of a bizarre but telling microcosm of the inhumane American justice system that manages to remain mostly compelling despite some major missteps.