Never underestimate Clint Eastwood. Last year, the 89-year-old filmmaker released his 36th — and worst — feature, The 15:17 to Paris, only to follow it ten months later with The Mule, a strong, personal adventure with a cantankerous hero roughly his own age. With retirement still nowhere in sight, Eastwood offers a new film that stands with his best work, drawn from the story of one of the more controversial nine-day wonders in recent history. Richard Jewell is an unexpected triumph, a complex drama about courage, fame and the peril of living under public scrutiny.
Richard Jewell was a security guard working in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics when he discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs hidden under a bench. Although the bomb went off, killing one bystander and injuring more than a hundred others, Jewell's early discovery and efforts to clear the park likely reduced the number of casualties, and he was praised as a hero — an extremely unlikely, overweight hero who lived with his mother and had an obsessive interest in police work and security. Jewell was an overnight sensation whose sudden fame turned sour after three days when it was reported that he was under investigation by the FBI as a suspect. The fact that there was — no spoiler here — no evidence against him held even less weight in the court of public opinion. Jewell became a punchline, presumed guilty by many commentators and branded "the Una-doofus" by Jay Leno.
Written by Billy Ray, Richard Jewell turns the anecdotal news story into a more personal drama showing how sudden fame and shifts of public sentiment alter the lives not only of Jewell and his mother (powerful performances from Paul Walter Hauser and Kathy Bates respectively) but of many others swept up in it, from a headline-hungry reporter (Olivia Wilde) to the cynical FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who seems more interested in keeping his job than in finding the truth. The film executes lively circles around the figures but remains firmly in Jewell's corner; he's a puzzled, childlike innocent in a world of fast talkers and unstable relationships, surviving mostly by his naïve but unshakable faith in justice.
Hauser, best known for his role as one of the conspirators in I, Tonya, takes a role that could easily have been a one-note caricature and creates a character who is comically simple yet almost heroically stubborn. The film gives him a compatible sidekick by structuring his story around his friendship with Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), an attorney who he had known for a few years and became by default his representative (he was the only lawyer Jewell knew) during the FBI investigation. Rockwell brings an amiable world-weariness to the role, a jaded skepticism that blends nicely with his client's ethical simplicity.
This is not the first time Eastwood has cast his lens on the hazards of celebrity, a subject which he barely distinguishes from notoriety. Richard Jewell follows his 2006 film Flag of Our Fathers in presenting overnight fame as an imposition, a momentary lapse from the ordinary which allows a lot of back-slapping weasels a chance to slip into a person's life for their own benefit. While the Iwo Jima flag-raisers were caught up by gales of patriotism and the war effort, Jewell's trouble comes from a less predictable and more irrational circumstance, simply being in the right place at the right time and having the rest of the world telling him it's wrong. It will be tempting for some to consider the director's occasional public statements (especially those made when speaking to empty chairs) and interpret the film as an attack on the free press or governmental overreach, but Eastwood's films almost always take an ambiguous approach. Regardless of his real-life politics, Eastwood's on-screen ideology has always ranged from a kind of bare-bones libertarianism to a knee-jerk crotchetiness, and this film remains faithful to those positions. Jewell remains true to himself and the film stays by his side even as the world around them spins absurdly out of control.