The upshot is that Jewell is right and when the bomb goes off, all but one life is saved (two, if you count the heart attack victim post the event) and despite the many injuries, Jewell’s actions foil the terrorist act. Overnight, Jewell becomes a hero complete with media attention, admiration from the cops and an appearance on the Today Show. But his celebrity is short-lived as agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) of the FBI, responding to a tip off from a former employee. It makes sense to the FBI. Jewell fits the profile. He’s a white middle-aged male who lives with his mother, has ambitions to be a police officer and a strong sense of his own importance in preventing crime. All this makes Jewell Shaw’s chief suspect. When Shaw leaks that information to Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) the full weight of law enforcement and the media comes down on Jewell and he becomes a pariah in the public eye.
When Clint’s movies are good they are often great (like his 2018 movie The Mule which was a cracker)... but when he misses the mark he often misses by a mile and, sadly, that’s the case here. It’s not so much a matter of the movie being bad; it’s more that it’s dull, plodding and feels lazy in its screencraft. The strong cast which, in addition to Hauser, Hamm and Wilde includes Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewell (Richard’s mother who bears the brunt of the public pillorying of her son) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant (Jewell’s former work colleague, now a washed up lawyer who takes on the case) are mostly underused and pedestrian in their performances. That’s not to say that they’re unwatchable; these are all actors who bring great presence to the screen even when they’re in movies that don’t allow them to shine (Bates received an Oscar nomination for her role, but it’s not surprising that she didn’t take home the statue).
One part of the problem here is the lacklustre direction of the film that offers up a by-the-numbers chronology of events and largely thumbnail sketches of the characters. The other part is an uninspiring screenplay by Billy Ray whose credits include last year’s Terminator: Dark Fate and Gemini Man but, more importantly, the 2003 film Shattered Glass (which he also directed) about Stephen Glass, the journalist who fabricated more than half of his published stories. Like that movie, the Richard Jewell screenplay is based on a magazine article (as well as a book) and, like Shattered Glass, the heart of Richard Jewell’s storytelling feels eclipsed by the details of its unfolding events.
On the plus side, Hauser is good as Jewell who is his own worst enemy in terms of making himself look guilty. It’s a laconic, likeable performance that melds nicely with an equally good performance by Bates as the protective mother. But the standout (for me, at least) is Nina Ariadna as Bryant’s long suffering but smart-as-a-whip assistant Nadya Light. It’s a minor role, but the story comes to life every time she enters a scene.
I saw this movie with my son, Gully (we were the only two punters in the cinema) and about two-thirds of the way through, he leant over to me and said “...isn’t the FBI just doing its job?” In a way, he was bang on the money. If you’re expecting to see a tight thriller that exposes a miscarriage of justice then, like me, you’re likely to be disappointed. Yes, the FBI treated Jewell badly in the way they went after him with little or no real evidence. But, isn’t that the nature of investigation, to interrogate the suspect in order to discover the guilt or innocence? And even if (as portrayed here) the agents are lazy and expedient and misleading in their investigation, it’s more a case of shoddy police work than of corruption. (in the real world, the lead FBI investigator was only suspended for five days because of the way he handled the case).
In fact, it’s the media that’s the real bad guy in this film, jumping to conclusions which are published well before there is any substantiation. It’s a shame, then, that Wilde’s journalist character Kathy Scruggs is so flimsily and superficially written. In fact, the suggestion that she traded sex for the leaked FBI information has been the most controversial aspect of this film. In fact, she died well before the film was made and her source was never revealed. Here, though, she’s played as an amoral go-getter who’ll do anything to get a headline and yet (mild spoiler alert) she is very easily turned around on the simplest of revelations and when that happens, her whole character seems to soften and change in a way that seems far from plausible.
Don’t get me wrong... it’s not that there isn’t a story here to tell. What happened to Richard Jewell and his mother was reprehensible and his treatment by both the FBI and the media was grossly unfair. His story should be a parable for us about the dangers of jumping to conclusions, relying on profiles and of being all too ready to buy the news outlet with the most sensationalist headline. In this case, though, neither Billy Ray nor Clint Eastwood have found the way to tell that story on the big screen.