Richard Jewell (2019)

359 Richard Jewell

Film is film, politics is politics, and never the twain shall meet, right? Not always. At one level, the film Richard Jewell (2019) is simply a loner-victimisation narrative; at another, it is an indictment of American media and the FBI, themes dear to the heart of today’s conservative politics.

Anti-hero Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a pudgy non-descript office clerk who is obsessed about law and order. With dreams of becoming a police officer, he gets a job as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. His acute attention to detail leads him to discover an unattended backpack loaded with bombs. On his own initiative, in the middle of a crowd of thousands, he activates emergency evacuation procedures, thus avoiding massive loss of life.

As part of its investigation, the FBI believes Jewell fits the profile of a fake hero, someone who sets up a disaster for the fame of averting catastrophe. FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) leaks the theory to his lover, hot-shot journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who scoops the story nationwide. Jewell lives with his mother, and their lives become a living hell. Their home is staked out by the press and he is vilified everywhere he goes. Unable to afford legal representation, his story comes to the attention of unassuming lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) who guides the Jewells through legal minefields and eventually to justice.

Without a likeable victim this film would simply not work. Paul Walter Hauser has the ability to elicit pity and empathy in equal measure, and his sincere enthusiasm for doing what is right in the face of public scorn is uncommon for ‘fat guys who still live with their mom’ stereotypes. Hauser captures every nuance of falling victim to the excesses of the FBI and the media; in real life, he was a walking-talking testament to the fallibility of both. Likewise, Sam Rockwell is excellent in playing the understated lawyer who rises to help the helpless. The rest of the cast and the pace of direction make this a well-filmed, gripping, David and Goliath narrative.

Given its top-shelf ingredients and engaging authenticity, why is the film attracting controversy? Director Clint Eastwood had the choice to construct a narrative about either human or institutional failure, and he chose the latter. In its climactic scenes, Richard Jewell’s admiration for American law enforcement and the third estate evaporates, a message that the current White House Administration enthusiastically supports. A more balanced reading of the film avoids this propaganda trap.


Director: Clint Eastwood

Stars:  Paul Walter Hauser, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell