Hollywood has gotten so safe that we rarely get movies like “Richard Jewell” anymore: bad but worth seeing, anyway.
Its chief asset is a title character who is almost Shakespearean in his complexity and humanity. Jewell was the security guy who discovered a bomb at the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, saved many lives and then found himself accused of planting the bomb to feed his own hero complex.
Based on his performance here, as well as the knee-capper in “I, Tonya” and as a KKK dolt in “BlacKkKlansman,” Paul Walter Hauser is in danger of being typecast as minimally educated dupes, but he’s outstanding as this particular dupe. “Richard Jewell” doesn’t try to figure out its main character; Billy Ray’s script simply lays out who he is — a mama’s boy, a gun nut, a helper, a kind person and, yes, someone with a hero complex — and honors the fact that he is a really difficult person to pin down.
As a director, Clint Eastwood’s strength is in helping fellow actors shape performances and he does that in a variety of ways in “Richard Jewell.” You could argue that he casts Sam Rockwell, as Hauser’s outrageous but dedicated attorney, in a role Rockwell has played,before but his performance is likable in its modesty and humor. Nina Arianda — a Broadway veteran who should be playing movie leads — is astonishingly vivid in the nothing role of the attorney’s assistant. And Kathy Bates, like Rockwell, slides into her part easily but offers subtle shades in her portrayal of Jewell’s devoted mother.
I think we’re meant to believe that Jewell’s eagerness to please his mom leads to his puppy dog-like cooperation with the FBI, even as its officers are busy ignoring the facts and setting him up to take the fall — which is an interesting notion. His biggest cheerleader is also his undoing.
The FBI stuff, however, is where the movie goes south, depicting law enforcement and journalism as cartoonishly evil and stupid. Undoubtedly, huge mistakes were made, but Jon Hamm, as the head fed, comes off like Javert in “Les Misérables,” minus the show tunes that make Javert palatable: He knows he has an innocent guy and he simply doesn’t care. It’s the FBI that is shown giving a bad news tip to a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. So, you’d think the FBI would be the bad guy here, but Ray and Eastwood reserve the bulk of their scorn for journalists, in the form of a now-deceased Atlanta reporter named Kathy Scruggs.
Olivia Wilde is terrible as Scruggs, but it’s not entirely her fault since the character she’s asked to play is so baffling and unbelievable: belittling her colleagues, lying to sources, exchanging sex for info (not cool, even when it’s Hamm) and actually confessing that she doesn’t know how to write. All of which the movie seems to think is OK because Scruggs becomes a crybaby when she realizes she reported untruths.
So many things are going on in the movie’s vision of Scruggs that she seems like a fictional composite character, even though they’re using an actual person’s name. (The paper has demanded a disclaimer.)
Many details in “Richard Jewell” are similarly overdetermined. For instance, before the FBI turns on Jewell, the Bates character delights in nonstop news reports that proclaim her son a hero. So, why, when she flips on a TV that is about to shift the narrative from hero to villain — something she does not yet know — was Bates directed to hear her son’s name and immediately look terrified rather than delighted?
Too often, we watch things play out in “Richard Jewell” in a way we know they could not have played out, and that’s a shame. This is a story worth telling, but the way it’s told makes no sense.