RICHARD JEWELL certainly has the makings of a compelling, infuriating cautionary tale about the abuse of power, but Clint Eastwood’s homage to the common man chooses instead to be a screed against ambitious women and government agents at the mercy of their hormones. Everything that ensues after Jewell finds a bomb planted at Centennial Part during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, can be traced back to those sins. Rather than a thoughtful piece about the necessity of our society first to praise and then to tear down its celebrities, or the perils of profiling, timely subjects ripe for scrutiny, Mr. Eastwood has dumbed-down the issues by finding the lowest common denominator and appealing to same for his film.
Based on the story of Jewell, a law-enforcement groupie with a checkered employment history in that profession and its environs, who was first lauded as a hero, and then, within days, pilloried as the person who planted the bomb to get attention, it evinces as little affect as Jewell himself for 90% of its running time. Nor does it make Jewell, who certainly deserves our sympathy for the way he was railroaded, a character with whom we can connect. He is, perhaps as he was in life, the sort of person you meet at a bar or at work and then spend the rest of your time there gently avoiding. Jewell (played with eerie precision by Paul Walter Hauser), is not an unpleasant person, he is considerate and eager to please, but he’s also not personable. I don’t know what the antonym of personable is, that this version of Jewell is just that with his complete lack of humor and stultifyingly colorless personality.
This personality flaw doesn’t prevent him from impressing Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer at the Small Business Bureau where Jewell is employed as a supply clerk at the start of the film. He anticipates Bryant’s supply needs, including a stash of his favorite candy bar. In the idiom of films such as these, the interchange they have foreshadows who Jewell will call when celebrity and then infamy strike.
Between those two events, however, Jewell, a man who takes his work a little too seriously, will find and lose employment as a sheriff’s deputy, be dismissed from campus security at a university for pushing an admittedly obnoxious matriculator, and complain to his mama (Kathy Bates), that the world owes her better than their lower-middle class life. When work as a security guard at Centennial Park during the Olympics crops up, he sees it as a chance to get back into his dream job in law enforcement, meaning that he will take his responsibilities guarding the audio equipment to which he’s been assigned even more seriously. In the process, his by-the-book attitude makes him something of a joke to his co-workers and the Atlanta police assigned to monitor the concerts at the park. To the credit of everyone involved, watching Jewell in his doomed attempts to ingratiate himself, his total lack of even the most rudimentary social skills, provokes the sympathy it was intended. In this Eastwood succeeds. Jewell is many things in the course of the film, but an object of scorn by the audience is never one of them.
Meanwhile, hotshot Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is lording it over her fellow reporters for swatting their paltry stories from the front page with her crime reporting. We know that Scruggs is evil because she rings her eyes with too much liner, and she is contemplating breast-augmentation surgery to land her own dream job on television. She, too, has no sense of humor, and is just as driven as Jewell, a parallel that might have been an interesting element to explore in a better-written film. Instead, she has but one way to get a story, and that is to hector it out of people, and if that fails, place her hand on just the right part of a man’s thigh. In this case, that of Special Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), an FBI man with few scruples and no sense of decency who is willing to spill secrets in exchange for a tumble in the sheets. The secret is that Jewell, despite no evidence of guilt, has become the agency’s number one suspect in the bombing, the which Scruggs gleefully splashes across the front page of the AJC.
Both Hamm and Wilde play their characters as one-dimensionally as they are written, leaving no doubt about the unredeemable villainy of those characters and their respective institutions. Rockwell plays Rockwell, which is not a bad thing, and certainly brings a lively texture to an otherwise rote propaganda piece. Bates stretches beyond the confines of the doting mother of a problematic son, bringing dignity and strength to a woman otherwise defined by her crush on Tom Brokaw.
Then there is Hauser, an actor who is impressive in is commitment to being a non-entity for 99% of his performance. When the metamorphotic moment finally arrives, all too fleetingly, Eastwood’s desire to elevate the lumpenproletariat is brought home with full force. That he also feels that the script will then allow this common man, with only simple honesty on his side, to bring the powers that be to tears proves to be wishful thinking. When the comeuppance arrives, it teeters on the edge of self-parody.
RICHARD JEWELL never intended to be a hagiography of its eponymous character, and for that all concerned should be given credit. If only the nuance that would have made this a challenging critique of our culture had been present to give him a gripping cinematic journey.