To Clint Eastwood, heroism is a heavy load. As a movie star, he is best known for playing antiheroes such as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry—characters who stalked across the screen with grim menace, as if burdened by the good they had to do in a dark and angry world. As a director, Eastwood has had a long and varied career, but of late, he’s been captivated by real-life American champions, figures such as Chesley Sullenberger and Chris Kyle who struggled with the attention that came with the headlines. It’s no wonder, then, that Eastwood is drawn to the so-called ballad of Richard Jewell, a man whose public bravery became a curse after the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Jewell was a security guard who discovered a backpack loaded with pipe bombs during a concert at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, alerting police and saving hundreds of lives from an act of domestic terrorism. Initially hailed for his valor, he was eventually investigated by the FBI and vilified in the news, suspected of planting the bombs for himself to discover as a stunt. Though his name was eventually cleared, the condemnation dwarfed the praise. In turning the now-deceased Jewell into the protagonist of a film, Eastwood is catapulting him back into public view, but Richard Jewell works because, decades after the incident, it’s skeptical of the spotlight.
The film is driven by a striking lead performance from Paul Walter Hauser, best known until now for playing dim-witted supporting villains in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman. The audience meets Jewell when he is a mail clerk who has dreams of going into law enforcement but can never quite turn those aspirations into reality. He is observant and learns rules easily, but utterly struggles to convey authority—an early scene sees him harassing students as a campus policeman, unable to find the line between chiding them and shoving them to the ground.
These are some of the most compelling scenes of Richard Jewell; Eastwood seems fascinated by Jewell’s pathetic streak and his glaring desire to impress authority figures at any cost. Those qualities, as much as anything, sabotaged him after the Atlanta bombing, as the FBI zeroed in on him as a suspect and he allowed the agency to question him without any legal protection. Much as in Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, and other recent pieces of real-life storytelling by Eastwood, Richard Jewell meticulously re-creates the most crucial event of its title character’s existence: the moment when Jewell’s attention to detail and procedure helps him find the Atlanta pipe bombs.
However, the director also takes pains to layer in Jewell’s sadder, more human flaws. He is certainly less of a paragon than Sully (who was played by Tom Hanks) and the do-gooder Americans who foiled a terrorist attack on a French train (who literally played themselves). Hauser taps into Jewell’s tendency toward hangdog dejection beautifully, giving a performance miles away from the cartoonish (but cute) work he’s done on-screen until now. The character’s allies are similarly complex figures, including the tenacious bottom-rung lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who defends Jewell because he remembers him as a mail clerk, and Jewell’s sweet but indulgent mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), who feels powerless to shield her son when the feds and the media start closing in.
That level of nuance doesn’t extend to the antagonists of the picture. Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), the lead agent investigating Jewell, is portrayed as a cutthroat dirtbag, a man with a vendetta who turns on Jewell mostly because he sees him as a loser. But Hamm, at least, knows not to make Shaw vaudevillian, just giving him a grimy edge and letting Billy Ray’s rather blunt script do the rest. The same cannot be said of Olivia Wilde, playing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, who helped break the story that Jewell was under investigation.
The screenplay doesn’t do Wilde any favors. In her first scene, Scruggs profanely boasts to a group of other female reporters about nabbing salacious front-page scoops. Immediately after the bombing, she prays out loud that the terrorist will turn out to be someone interesting. In another particularly ludicrous sequence, it’s implied that she sleeps with Shaw to get a story, which has no basis in reported fact. Given that so much of Eastwood’s approach to biopics amounts to careful stenography, this material comes off as nonsensical and upsets the film’s tonal balance. Wilde’s depiction of Scruggs is so demonic that I half-expected the character’s final scene to show her walking through the gates of hell.
Many Eastwood movies thrive on a good adversary—he’s brought incredible portrayals of malice to the screen, from the villain of his debut film, Play Misty for Me, to Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning turn in Unforgiven—but it’s not something Richard Jewell really needs. The film fails when it leans into its simplistic impulses, painting Jewell as a noble saint and the FBI and media as knitted together in a conspiracy out to get him. Richard Jewell largely avoids those pitfalls, instead grappling with the limits of its protagonist. To Eastwood, Jewell is a hero not just because he saved people’s lives, but also because he was an ordinary and imperfect man who rose to the occasion when the moment demanded it. That’s the story Richard Jewell should be telling, and it succeeds when it sticks to that path.