Clint Eastwood is a big fan of the unsung American hero. Three of his last four movies have been based on true stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things. American Sniper, Sully and the 15:17 to Paris have all been about regular guys, placed in ordinary situations that became extraordinary and tell the story of how each of them found a way to be heroic, just by doing what comes naturally to them. Now 89, it seems apparent that Eastwood is drawn to these stories of everyday heroism and enjoys bringing their tales to light.
So it seems natural that it is Eastwood who would bring Richard Jewell’s story to the big screen. Jewell was the security guard for the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics who discovered a suspicious backpack under a bench and alerted authorities, who confirmed the threat and started to clear the area. The backpack, which was in fact a bomb, exploded before everyone could be moved out of harm’s way and two people were killed and hundreds wounded. The loss of life could have been much higher, however, if it hadn’t been spotted. Jewell was hailed as a hero but then became a suspect when a perpetrator wasn’t quickly found. What resulted turned into the worst case of media whiplash this country has seen. In a matter of days, one ordinary man went from hero to villain in the eyes of the world. And behind it all was a man whom nobody really knew.
Eastwood’s style is to personalize his subjects, to bring the audience into their average-joe existence, to find ways to relate to them. In the case of Richard Jewell, the most important part was the casting. Eastwood cast journeyman actor Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell, and the choice is what makes the movie. Hauser’s casual, understated and relaxed demeanor plays perfectly into the overall conflict for the viewer about watching Jewell’s story play out. It would be so easy to believe that Jewell was either a hero or a villain if he had this big personality, but Hauser instead plays him as an expression-less, casual observer of his own life. It’s impossible to judge something that you just can’t get a grip on. Screenwriter Billy Ray wrote the script based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, and it is a fascinating study of human nature and a consumption-based society that feeds off sound bites and craves easy answers.
But big stories always come down to the human beings at the center of them and Richard Jewell does a good job at focusing on Jewell’s life at the center of the storm. The emotional heartbeat of the film isn’t Jewell himself, it’s his mother, played to perfection by Kathy Bates, who feels the turmoil more than her son does. Our empathy connects far more with her than with him, as Ray and Eastwood successfully build a narrative where the audience isn’t even sure for themselves what to think of him.
Eastwood always finds a way to inject a little of the personal politic into his films, and his portrayal of the FBI and their investigation is clearly subjective, but overall, Richard Jewell is an interesting glimpse into the forces that shape our country: media, law enforcement and snap judgments.