Richard Jewell explores how an unlikely hero loses his religion

Paul Walter Hauser brilliantly portrays the security guard who discovered the Atlanta Olympics bomb only to find himself accused of planting it in Clint Eastwood’s all-American tale of apostasy.

Updated: 8 December 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant and Paul Walter Hauser as the titular Richard Jewell
Sight and Sound

Richard Jewell is available on digital platforms, Blu-ray and DVD.

In his prime, Clinton Eastwood Jr was a strapping six-foot-four Adonis, a jackpot in the genetic lottery. This made him a star, a status the 89-year-old has kept for as long as any working film actor ever has, and which he has anxiously guarded. Of the box-office failure of Don Siegel’s 1971 Civil War-set The Beguiled, in which he played a blue-belly gigolo who overestimates his charm and finds himself a sacrifice on the altar of female lust, he said: “Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino play losers very well. But my audience like to be in there vicariously with a winner. That isn’t always popular with critics… I don’t pretend to understand losers.”

It’s a callous statement on the face of it, but 60-plus years of filmmaking, both as director and actor, have shown that Eastwood’s definition of winners and losers is as eccentric as everything else about him. Having gained fame as the archetypal stranger-riding-into-town in Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name westerns, he would go on to amass a filmography peopled by outsiders, outcasts and yahoos, many of whom he portrayed himself.

By virtue of his innate gravity, Eastwood confers a measure of aristocratic stature to marginal and ridiculous figures such as the ex-shoe-salesman dress-up cowboy of Bronco Billy (1980), the wraith-like pseudo-reformed sociopath of Unforgiven (1992), the cracked Korean War vet of Gran Torino (2008) and the geriatric florist of The Mule (2018), but only a very peculiar system of valuation would merit any of those figures as winners. Eastwood might not have believed he can understand losers, but he’s spent his filmmaking career in their ranks.

Richard Jewell, then, doesn’t necessarily represent anything new in Eastwood’s filmography, though it is a further deconstruction of the traditional marquee ‘star’ performance along the lines of The 15:17 to Paris (2018), which cast the actual participants in the 2015 Thalys train attack as themselves.

Based on true events, as has been every Eastwood effort, however loosely, since 2010’s Hereafter, this latest film recounts crucial moments in the life of Richard Jewell. A Georgia-born security guard and sometime law-enforcement officer who died in 2007, Jewell made national news in 1996 – first as a hero, when he discovered pipe bombs in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the city’s Summer Olympics and helped to lead spectators away from the blast zone, then as a suspect, depicted as a thwarted weirdo who might have planted the explosives in order to cast himself in the role of saviour. Stocky, solitary and awkward, Jewell was suspicious precisely because he didn’t look the part of the hero.

Adapted by screenwriter Billy Ray from a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, and a book, The Suspect, by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, which recount the media circus that enveloped Jewell and his small circle of family and friends, Eastwood’s film is in essence a study of character under pressure – that of Jewell, certainly, but also of his single mother, with whom he lives, played by Kathy Bates, and of the lawyer he hires to defend him, Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell.

That Rockwell, who of late has been cashing cheques for performing hillbilly kitsch, has rediscovered himself here as a superlative straight man is something of a small miracle. Even more so is the other half of the double-act: Jewell as played by Paul Walter Hauser, to date best known as the mercenary kneecap thwacker in Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017) and as one of the white supremacist cabal in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).

Hauser’s Jewell is introduced as an officer manager dreaming of a career in law enforcement, punctilious in his duties to a degree suggesting a touch of OCD. When we re-encounter him ten years later, that very same detail-obsessive mania has stalled him in his cop ambitions, seeing him fired from a campus police job to pick up an undistinguished security gig at the Olympics, a demotion he takes in his stride, scampering to deliver gratis Coca-Colas to the uniformed officers. Flush and fleshy, he has a hulking man’s burly build and a quality of boyishness that includes, once circumstances put him in the firing line, the mannerisms of a peevish toddler. He’s an exasperated innocent, and Hauser plays him as one part Sancho Panza, one part Baby Huey. He is very funny, at times disarmingly sweet, and extremely moving in his slow-awakening self-respect.

The defining characteristic of Hauser’s performance early on is an earnest eagerness to be of use, of any use at all, channelled through an ingrained belief in the unalloyed good of the forces of law and order. The public humiliation to which he is subjected is a crucible that sorely tests his faith, while illustrating the extent of his obsequious devotion to authority. Even as an FBI team – led by Jon Hamm, a lantern-jawed alpha in the Eastwood mould – turns the modest apartment that Jewell shares with his mother inside out, Jewell remains unfailingly deferential, insisting on the existence of a professional kinship with his persecutors, while they barely conceal their snickers at his references to “cop to cop” camaraderie.

This desire to be useful has a particular poignancy, for Jewell is a man who has at every turn been given reason to feel useless, a rubicund dork without much to recommend him on the sexual marketplace – and so unflappably amiable is Hauser’s characterisation that the moment when he lets slip his awareness of the contempt in which he’s held is enormously affecting.

The sexual marketplace, pointedly, is where the unscrupulous exchange that puts the Jewell investigation in the headlines is negotiated, between Hamm and local newswoman Kathy Scruggs, played with all-in gusto by Olivia Wilde. In a blunt equation, government and the media literally hop into bed together, while lumpen-proletariat Jewell just gets screwed.

Ever the unflinching and somewhat dour realist, Eastwood presents us with an American landscape that has largely been denuded of the picturesque, dotted with Jamba Juices, chain hotels and suburban apartment complexes. The film has a feel for life on the lowest rung of the middle class, conveyed simply in Bates’s helpless protest of “I babysit with those” as the FBI confiscates her Disney VHS tapes. Such precarity breeds excessive caution in the face of authority, and Richard Jewell is the story of a man learning how to overcome that caution, in no small part through being prodded along by the prickly Bryant.

Gaining self-worth, Jewell loses his faith in the religion of authority, and Eastwood’s tale of apostasy ends on a note of lingering melancholy. Six years later, Jewell, exonerated, has made his way back into a police desk job, where Bryant finds him to deliver the news that the real bomber has confessed.

Bryant parts with an admiring declaration to the uniformed officer Jewell: “Look at you.” It’s meant as an affirmation, but Jewell doesn’t smile, his capacity to simply take pride in participation in the system forever disturbed. Gone is the campus cop seen earlier in a swaggering low-angle shot. What remains is a man left to self-reflection, and the question posed earlier by Bryant: “Tell me, Richard, you still proud to be law enforcement?”

Originally published: 29 January 2020

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