Clint Eastwood’s new film Richard Jewell tells the true story of the eponymous security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, who prevented considerable loss of life when he discovered a bomb in a rucksack (even though the device still went off, leading to two deaths and multiple injuries). Unfortunately, Richard was then investigated by the FBI as a prime suspect, and the media had a field day with the hero to villain story, making life all but intolerable for Richard and his mother.
We often hear a film is based on fact, but here, somewhat refreshingly, the facts are mostly stuck to. Richard Jewell was, in his own words, brought up with a respect for law and order. He was officious, bureaucratic, and in his various security jobs sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. But it was his heroic vigilance that prevented the Atlanta bombing from becoming something far worse. Unfortunately, the FBI took advantage of Richard’s respect for them, and caused a great deal of aggravation and heartache for him and his mother. More damningly, the appalling reporting of the case represented a new low for the media.
Eastwood directs with his trademark unfussiness, and performances are uniformly excellent. Paul Walter Hauser is great in the lead, and he is given fine support from the likes of Cathy Bates (as Richard’s mother Bobi), Jon Hamm (as FBI agent Tom Shaw), and the always wonderful Sam Rockwell, as Richard’s lawyer and friend Watson Bryant. Richard’s relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, are both very touching. In the case of the former, cynical, world-weary Watson builds up a great head of outrage at the way the FBI are taking advantage of Richard’s naïve view of the police, the FBI, and authority figures in general.
My only nit-pick with the film is with the character of hard-nosed journalist Kathy Scruggs, played here by Olivia Wilde. The film implies that she used sex to get inside information from the FBI, thus enabling her to break the story that began Richard’s media persecution. Whilst she did break the story in real life, questions have been raised about the sex-for-leaks angle, and because Kathy Scruggs is no longer alive to answer the question definitively, this point has proved controversial and divisive. Even Olivia Wilde has distanced herself from the role, saying she didn’t mean to imply sexual bribery (even though the film clearly does, in my view).
If the above is untrue, then it is a shame Eastwood felt the need to embellish what is already a compelling narrative that sticks to the facts elsewhere. However, that caveat notwithstanding, Richard Jewell is a compelling, absorbing watch; the best film Eastwood has made in a decade.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content warnings: Strong language.