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Chris Knight: Richard Jewell a textbook case of cinema as catharsis machine


They say all you need in life is one good friend. Sometimes, one good lawyer will do. And if you can get both in one, you’re flying.

That’s the dynamic between Sam Rockwell’s small-town attorney Watson Bryant, and Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell. In 1996, Jewell was accused of setting a bomb in Atlanta’s Olympic Park that killed one person and injured more than a hundred.

But as director Clint Eastwood’s movie makes clear from the opening frame, Jewell was never anything but a hero. The security guard found an abandoned backpack, convinced the cops to take it seriously, and was helping to move people away from it when it exploded.

It was only several days later, when a story appeared in the local paper that the FBI considered Jewell a suspect, that a second explosion took place; this one took out the hero’s life, psychologically if not physically.

Richard Jewell’s screenplay was adapted by Billy Ray from a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner. The long-form reporting includes many details that are picked up by the film, including a joke made at the time by Jay Leno, that Jewell “had a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan.” (Hauser also played that role in I, Tonya.)

The impeccable cast includes Jon Hamm as a hard-charging FBI agent, and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s straight-arrow mom. (When asked if he’s part of any religious cults, Richard replies: “Not unless being a Baptist is a religious cult.”) The one clanging note is Olivia Wilde as newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs; she seems to be overselling her role as a blowsy, hair-unkempt, sunglasses-inside journo.

But it’s Hauser and Rockwell who really sell the story. As Jewell, Hauser is all “yes sir, yes ma’am,” southern respect and deference. And Rockwell’s Bryant is a pugnacious lawyer: “Let’s beat the hell out of these bastards,” he says upon agreeing to represent the man.

It’s also lovely to see Rockwell firmly on the side of the angels, after a run of (albeit excellent) parts that saw him playing a racist cop (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), a Klan leader (The Best of Enemies), an unpopular president (Vice) and a Nazi (Jojo Rabbit). Honestly, I was beginning to worry about him.

Eastwood, meanwhile, has had a real thing for real heroes of late, dramatizing those who foiled a terror plot on a train (15:17 to Paris), landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River (Sully) and fought for their country (American Sniper).

This newest is an almost textbook case of cinema as a catharsis machine. There’s little nuance, a stirring score, a scene where Jewell’s mom castigates the media, and another where he gets to give what-for to the FBI. They do have it coming; Hamm’s character spends much of the film portraying Jewell as a lone bomber, and then tries to spin him as a lone bomber – with an accomplice.

But the film hits hardest in the way it shows how, once a suspicion of guilt is made, the law can have a difficult time pivoting. Anything unusual – and Jewell sounds like he was a basket of unusual – goes into propping up the theory.

And when Bryant calls him out for being so cooperative with the FBI, for not being more angry and combative – for not being more like Bryant himself – Jewell raises his voice for pretty much the only time in the movie, telling him: “I don’t know how to be that guy. You’re that guy. I’m me.” That’s the only thing of which he was ever guilty.

3.5 stars

Richard Jewell opens across Canada on Dec. 13.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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