Courtesy of Warner Bros.
At 89 years old, Clint Eastwood shows no sign of slowing down. The filmmaker works fast, loose, and quick under the wire, quietly sneaking his latest film: the biopic “Richard Jewell,” into Oscar contention after completing filming over the summer. He did the same for last year’s “The Mule” which surprisingly went on to gross north of a $100 million stateside. While “15:17 to Paris” was far from perfect, it would seem with “Richard Jewell” the director has made a decent rebound in terms of quality.
“Richard Jewell” belongs in the pathos of Eastwood’s films dedicated to heroes. Think “Sully” or “American Sniper,” and though this rather tame drama won’t push new fans into Eastwood’s camp, he’s pulled a remarkable performance from “I, Tonya” standout Paul Walter Hauser in the lead role. The film explores a tale of courage gone array after security guard Richard Jewell stumbled upon a bomb in Centennial Park during one night of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The blast only killed one person and injured more than 100, but the casualties could’ve been much worse had Richard not sniffed out the suspicious package. Yet without an obvious suspect, the FBI (headed by a smug Jon Hamm) need to point the blame at someone, and proceed to make Jewell the primary suspect in their investigation. A snarky journalist (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story in the local Atlanta newspaper and mass hysteria ensues, leaving Jewell to hire an old boss Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to represent him.
The film takes a low-key approach to the material and doesn’t try to dramatize too much of the stakes (despite controversy surrounding the interpretation of Wilde’s character). This is a sound retelling of these events, and Eastwood knows how to tell a good story as much as anyone. A newcomer to leading roles, Hauser is given the meat and potatoes of Jewell, a Paul Blart of sorts that desperately wants to be taken seriously. His performance gives the film its beating heart, but Eastwood’s simplistic filmmaking hammers it home. He and cinematographer Yves Belanger often let the audience view characters from afar, and at times (especially as Eastwood doesn’t inject a score in most of his films) “Richard Jewell” almost falls into made-for-tv territory. Eastwood utilized a similar plain style in “The Mule” to iffy results, but he didn’t have Kathy Bates and Rockwell beefing up his cast.
Bates has a few emotional showstoppers guaranteed to get her in the Oscar conversation as Richard’s mother Bobi. Though she’s largely pushed to the sideline, a scene where she is forced to give a tearful press conference, pleading for then president Bill Clinton to pardon her son, elevates the muted status of “Richard Jewell.” On the other hand, Rockwell provides a gripping centerfold to the chaos and continues his hot streak of finding empathy in any character he plays. The Oscar winner is clearly having a moment, and I’m here for it. Hauser makes the biggest leap in the film, after small supporting turns in “I, Tonya” and “BlacKkKlansman,” making Richard someone worth rooting for. Pairing him with Eastwood on this feels like the quintessential role to get him on everyone’s radar.