It was only a couple years ago that actor James Franco was enjoying critical acclaim on his way to expected Oscar glory for The Disaster Artist when pre-awards season buzz around sexual misconduct seemingly completely derailed the actors positive, feel-good vibe and expected Oscar glory turned into nary a nomination.
This year, 89-year-old Clint Eastwood has crafted his best film in years, Richard Jewell, but the film's expected road to critical acclaim and potential awards season glory has been marred by concerns about screenwriter Billy Ray's portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs, who broke the story of Jewell going from hero to suspect in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and who here is portrayed as having essentially seduced an FBI agent to obtain the information. It's an odd narrative twist for which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has filed suit on behalf of Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 and isn't here to defend herself, as it's such a minor narrative thread in the film and could have easily been avoided via the usual name change or simply choosing to focus on the far more accurate assertion that Scruggs was, in fact, blatantly wrong in her journalism in a field where being wrong is inexcusable and can, and in this case, did destroy lives.
Rightfully so, Richard Jewell is actually about Richard Jewell, an innocent man who for nearly three months had his own life torn apart by false accusations that he was, in fact, responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing when, in fact, he was a hero that seemed like such an unlikely hero to the FBI that he became a suspect for practically no reason at all. Eastwood has long loved telling these types of stories, though frequently he can't stay out of his own way as a filmmaker. With Richard Jewell, Eastwood, for the most part, stays out of his own way and has created one of his most involving, engaging, and ultimately entertaining films in quite a few years.
Paul Walter Hauser, whom most will remember from a similar role in I, Tonya or from Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, is an absolute gem here and gives one of the year's finest performances as Jewell. Hauser's Jewell is the kind of guy you can just tell FBI agents saw as a potentially lethal schlub, a wannabe cop with an abundance of guns who lived with his mama (beautifully portrayed by Oscar winner Kathy Bates) and who never quite got the respect that he thought he deserved. There are actors who would have portrayed Jewell as a Schlub, but Hauser doesn't and the resulting performance is actually a beautiful thing to watch. You feel for Jewell and you should feel for Jewell. FBI agents and Kathy Scruggs basically ruined the guy's life at the one time, and really the only time, that society deservedly paid attention to him for actually being the hero that he'd always wanted to be.
Olivia Wilde, getting her own Oscar buzz this year as director of the stellar indie Booksmart, is quick to defend the film's portrayal of her character, Kathy Scruggs, and notes that she interpreted the script as implying that Scruggs had a pre-existing relationship of sorts with the FBI agent in question. Regardless, one has to give kudos to Wilde for avoiding anything resembling a one-note performance here and crafting the kind of character who is usually seen in a heroic light in this type of film but whose light here is dimmed. Kathy Bates, who consistently makes every film she's in a better film, takes a one-note role on paper and brings it fully to life as Jewell's mother, one of the few people to remain fiercely by his side throughout everything. Sam Rockwell is once again stellar as Watson Bryant, Jewell's fumbling and occasionally bumbling lawyer who, nonetheless, remains passionately pro-Jewell and whose perseverance ultimately pays off.
It's easy to get lost in the politics beneath the foundation of Richard Jewell or Clint Eastwood or our own perception, but Richard Jewell is a film that deserves attention regardless of ideology. Richard Jewell was an ordinary hero who was never really afforded the opportunity to be truly ordinary or a hero. He idolized the very type of men who ultimately betrayed him, casting doubt upon a man whose one moment of glory in life unjustly snatched away from him and whose entire life became fodder for media exploitation and late-night jokes. As a man, Richard Jewell deserves a film like Richard Jewell and while this film may not, and likely will not go down as one of Eastwood's greatest films it's an ordinary film about an ordinary man whose ordinary heroics saved lives.
That's pretty extraordinary.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic