Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 10, 2020)
Only months away from his 90th birthday, Clint Eastwood continues to work as an active director, one who averaged nearly a film a year after he turned 70. For 2019’s Richard Jewell, Eastwood turns his eye to events that occurred during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) aspires to serve in law enforcement, but at the age of 33, he finds himself stuck in semi-menial security guard situations. After he loses a gig at a local college, he finds temporary work as a patrol at concerts set to celebrate the games.
As he goes about his duties, Richard discovers a backpack that turns out to hide a bomb. Richard alerts various authorities, and although the device explodes, Richard’s warnings get most of the citizens out of harm’s way.
Though initially acclaimed as a hero, Richard soon comes under suspicion as the culprit. With the FBI on his case and press pre-judgments of his guilt, Richard fights to prove his innocence.
As much as I attempt to avoid modern politics in my reviews, sometimes this becomes impossible. This seems literally true for a movie like Bombshell, as much of the material involves the 2016 presidential election.
With Jewell, connections to the Trump era seem implied, not overt, but they exist nonetheless. Given that the story looks at the way the media and the FBI allegedly tried to railroad an innocent man, it becomes really tough not to see the parallels with the GOP depiction of various Trump-related investigations and his impeachment.
Perhaps if Jewell came from a source who lacked Eastwood’s conservative bona fides, I might make less of a connection. After all, Eastwood did that infamous mocking “interview” with President Obama at the 2012 Republican convention.
Granted, I don’t think Eastwood ever came out in support of Trump. He appears to have avoided public commitments to either 2016 candidate, and in February 2020, he came out in support of then-Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg.
All of that means I can’t accuse Eastwood of knee-jerk Trump support, so perhaps my inferences about this film’s intentions don’t fit. Still, the movie’s parallels to the Trump-centric view of many events seems less than coincidental.
Even if we ignore the potential connection to modern politics and judge it solely on its own merits, Jewell fails to prosper. While it remains wholly watchable, it seems simplistic and scattered.
Eastwood never seems especially sure what story he wants to tell. Sometimes it feels like a focus on Jewell’s life under the microscope and the accompanying ramifications, while other elements leave us with more of a police procedural, and others veer toward newsroom drama.
Toss in a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird-style legal material and Jewell tries to pack in a lot of disparate elements. Eastwood fails to make them come together, so we find ourselves left with a scattershot film.
Don’t expect nuance from Jewell, as it feels almost Capra-esque in its depiction of Richard. Oh sure, Eastwood occasionally hints at chinks in the lead’s armor, as it shows some flaws in his behavior.
However, Eastwood never develops these in a coherent way. We see Richard as just an innocent, trusting good old boy whose childlike obsession with law and order takes him across the line at times.
Oddly, Eastwood chooses to make Richard fairly comedic much of the time. Early on, the movie paints him as a self-important, bumbling Barney Fife, and his inability to shut his pie hole turns him into his own worst enemy when the FBI comes a-calling.
Rather than depict these elements in a dramatic way, though, Eastwood gives Richard the air of the loveable dope. He wants us to shake our heads at the lead’s actions but still smile and think “oh, that Richard!” like he’s a character on a sitcom.
While I suspect Eastwood figured these choices would make Richard sympathetic, instead they turn him into a cartoon, and Hauser’s performance doesn’t help. Best-known for his clearly comedic turn as the sub-moronic Shawn Eckhardt in I Tonya, Hauser doesn’t do much to veer from that goofy tone.
This leaves Richard as too dopey to take seriously, especially when we need him to outsmart the FBI along the way. Hauser simply fails to find reality in the character, so he makes Richard feel like a caricature.
The same goes for Olivia Wilde’s venomous turn as journalist Kathy Scruggs. Eastwood received much criticism for the apparent liberties he took with the role, and he deserved them, as he makes Scruggs nothing more than a heartless harpy who will leave no sexual stone unturned in her pursuit of a story.
Not only does Jewell force Kathy to sleep with FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) to get information, but also it paints her as a cartoon bimbo from the start. In her first appearance, she roars through the newsroom and declares “I’m getting my tits done” so she can advance in journalism.
Just as Richard gains about 50 IQ points toward the movie’s end, Jewell allows Kathy to grow a conscience when she realizes Richard must be innocent. This feels gratuitous and not well-executed.
Eastwood also gives the FBI little room to become anything other than simple-minded drones who will happily jail an innocent man to improve their conviction rates. Yeah, Jewell does provide some facts that make Richard look suspicious – an arrest for impersonating an officer, an unhealthy obsession with firearms – but as mentioned earlier, Eastwood shrugs these off with a laugh.
This means Eastwood always paints law enforcement as either petty and vindictive or simply incompetent. Rather than give the viewer a reason to understand the FBI’s concerns, Jewell leaves us no room for nuance, so we see them as more obsessed with closing the case than with justice.
If given a more serious, less one-sided treatment, Richard Jewell might’ve become a strong drama. As depicted here, unfortunately, this becomes a watchable but flawed tale.