Clint Eastwood is an old man and cinematic icon. At a brisk 89 years old, Eastwood has been in Hollywood for over sixty years and has been directing films for nearly fifty. Having made a number of award winning films, Eastwood is now in a phase of his life where he will make what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants. This is evident in his films as of late. Whether he’s staring in the films or behind the camera, Eastwood punches out a movie what seems like every year (he’s directed or starred in six movies over the last five years) and with each film is a well-made, interesting new entry in Eastwood’s filmography.
Over the last five years of Eastwood as a director, he has mostly focused on a certain topic: scrutinized and under-appreciated heroes. With films like American Sniper, Sully, and 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood takes a look at people whom he finds fascinating and interesting and whom he thinks are heroes and the struggles they faced in their hero journey.
Eastwood’s latest scrutinized hero is Richard Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia who found a bomb at Centennial Park and saved thousands of lives from the explosion, only to be accused of placing the bomb in the park in order to gain fame and infamy. Eastwood looks briefly at Jewell’s life before the bombing, but really focuses the film on the accusations that faced Jewell and how it effected him, his mother, and his lawyer.
From the opening scene Eastwood makes us feel sympathy for Jewell. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, in one of the great breakout performances of the year) is a lonely office assistant. He’s overweight, socially awkward, and gets made fun of by other people in the office. He befriends Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, bringing the charm and tenacity that Rockwell does best) by offering him a Snickers and knowing all of his supplies. Eastwood really highlights the loneliness of Jewell but also shows us just how earnest and authentic Jewell is. His whole goal in life is to be in law enforcement and be top cop. He works campus security at a college campus but acts more like an F.B.I agent than a chill campus security officer. You might feel uncomfortable by Jewell, but you never feel threatened by him and you can’t help but root for him in his journey to be a cop.
When Jewell has his moment, a thrilling, pulse-pounding scene that puts you right in the head of Jewell and the chaos of the moment, you can’t help but be excited for him. After being made fun of and not being taken seriously, Jewell was finally right and because of it, thousands of people were saved. It’s a triumphant moment and expertly crafted scene that ranks up there with the plane landing in the Hudson from Sully as one of the finer late-career Eastwood directorial efforts.
The triumph quickly vanishes after Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde, who is given a terribly written character and gives an equally terrible performance), a brash Atlanta news reporter, finds out the F.B.I. is looking at Jewell as the prime suspect and publishes an article with this information which she got from a dimwitted agent (Jon Hamm, essentially playing the same F.B.I. agent he played in The Town). Scruggs is the kind of reporter who would do anything to get a story, from sleeping with an F.B.I agent to breaking into a car and hiding in the backseat until someone came in, yet goes to her male co-worker for word punch-ups. She is ruthless and heartless and Eastwood clearly finds this woman the enemy of Jewell’s heroics and makes sure that we hate her and despise her. Though the F.B.I. is after Jewell and treat him unfairly, Scruggs is despicable and unlike Jewell, you despise her from minute one. Even when Scruggs begins to question her own story about Jewell, Eastwood doesn’t allow us time to forgive her, almost shrugging her off and telling us her redemption doesn’t matter, Jewell’s innocence does. This is far and away the worst part of the film and one that kept this film from true greatness.
During the investigation into Jewell, we get a lot of great moments between Hauser, Rockwell, and Kathy Bates, who plays Jewell’s mother who loves nothing more than her son and her Tupperware . We watch the comradery between Jewell and Bryant and the love Jewell and his mother share for each other. Eastwood loves this guy and he makes sure we love him too. It is during these times where Hauser’s performance really shines. It’s a slow burning performance, as Jewell begins the process cooperating with anything the F.B.I. needs, yet slowly realizes their intentions and begins to standup for himself. Hauser never loses Jewell’s honesty and earnestness and that drives the performance and ultimately the movie.
If it weren’t for the terribly written and acted Scruggs character, Richard Jewell would be a new Eastwood classic. Everything else about the film is sensational. Hauser is a star in the making, Rockwell continues his run of excellent performances, and Kathy Bates will get some Oscar buzz for her performance. Eastwood gives us a portrait of an American hero that is full of heart, tragedy, and triumph.
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