Review by Sean Boelman
As a director, Clint Eastwood’s track record since the turn of the century has been wildly inconsistent. He has made both some of the finest movies of this era (Million Dollar Baby) and some literal and figurative train wrecks (The 15:17 to Paris). With his newest film, Richard Jewell, Eastwood hopes to return to form, and while it is much better than most of his recent duds, it still feels like the filmmaker is out-of-touch with the zeitgeist.
The movie tells the story of the eponymous security guard, once hailed as a hero for discovering the pipe bomb in the 1996 Centennial Park only to become the lead suspect in the FBI’s investigation into the matter. This is a very interesting moment in U.S. history, and Eastwood manages to tell it in a way that is undeniably cinematic and entertaining, yet his political agenda that ties the film to modern day political issues is sometimes overwhelming.
More so than even Eastwood’s most jingoistic outings, Richard Jewell is a mean-spirited and aggressive movie. However, rather than setting his sights on an external enemy in a bout of xenophobia, Eastwood targets the institutions of the government and the media in a way that plays out more like paranoia than a legitimate, substantiated claim. Yes, there is plenty of blame in this situation to be placed on these people who exploited Jewell, but Eastwood goes about portraying it in the wrong way.
When the film is a character-driven drama exploring the impacts of the false accusation on Jewell and his family, it is actually quite riveting. These portions of the movie are very resonant on an emotional level, aided by a phenomenal cast bringing their all to the film. The more intense sequences in the beginning of the movie are shot in a way that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
That said, when the film tries to be an exposé on the inadequacies of the media, the movie falls flat. The film’s portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) has come under fire as of late, but even beyond that controversy, the character is simply poorly-written. For the first half of the movie, she is cartoonishly antagonistic, and then in the second half, she is given an attempt at an arc, ruining some of the best moments in the other characters’ stories.
Regardless, the excellent performances of some of the cast members are able to help the film overcome some of the script’s deficiencies. Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Jewell, is wonderful. Known to this point mostly for his character work, Hauser proves that he has the chops and the charisma to be a strong leading man. His chemistry with Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, who give great turns as Jewell’s lawyer and mother, respectively, is a significant part of what makes the movie so effective.
On a technical level, this is perhaps Eastwood’s most ambitious film in a while, but that doesn’t always pay off. Some sequences, such as one that cross-cuts between the characters investigating the bombing and a race at the Olympics, are some of the most dynamic of the year. Others, like a Kenny Rogers concert (that plays a surprising role in the story) and a Macarena dance number (which doesn’t) will leave one baffled as to why Eastwood included them in the first place.
Richard Jewell is a mostly effective movie thanks to its talented cast and the emotional pull of the story. Eastwood’s direction is all over the place and there is an entire storyline that should have been cut out, but somehow, the film still manages to work.
Richard Jewell opens in theaters on December 13.