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The 1996 Olympic Park Bombing was a shocking act of terrorism during an event that celebrated world unity. It happened basically live on television as the global community watched. However, what most people remember about the event isn’t the bombing itself, but instead what happened afterward.
If you can name a person connected with the bombing, it’s likely not Eric Rudolph, the actual guilty party, but instead Richard Jewell, the security guard who first discovered the device, and then was suspected of having personally planted it. Jewell’s name is now synonymous with the idea of a rush to judgement, and now Clint Eastwood has brought the story to the screen. What he hasn't brought, is any compelling reason for telling the story, beyond the fact that it once made headlines.
Richard Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, who previously starred in the deliciously wicked I, Tonya as Jeff Gillooly, and it’s easy to see why. Jewell is sort of the “good angel” version of Gillooly. Rather than viewing himself unjustifiably as something of a strategic criminal genius, Jewell is an actual student of police procedure —though the quiet, eager to please man certainly doesn’t come across as one. All Jewell wants is to work in law enforcement, though he’s had limited success due to his tendency to act above his role.
Richard Jewell somehow succeeds at being less than the sum of its parts.
As chronicled by the film, Richard Jewell finds work as a security guard for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 after being let go from his job as security at a local university, and it’s there that he recognizes a suspicious package which turns out to actually be what everybody fears: a bomb.
Richard Jewell opens so slowly that when the bomb does explode, injuring more than 100 people and resulting in the death of two, it is truly a jarring moment, both physically and emotionally. It feels like the movie entirely builds to the moment from the outset, and after it gets there, it seems like it should be off to the races. And yet, that never really happens.
What follows is instead little more than a boilerplate retelling of events. Jon Hamm is Tom Shaw, the FBI agent leading the investigation, and he quickly turns his attention to Richard Jewell because the frustrated law enforcement wannabe fits the profit of the “lone bomber.” Olivia Wilde is the reporter, Kathy Scruggs, who discovers that Jewell is a person of interest, and breaks the news to the world, setting off the media firestorm that is the most memorable part of the whole event.
All of the performances, also including Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s lawyer, and Kathy Bates as Jewell's mother, are solid. It’s difficult to point to anything out of place with the performances as they are presented, Nobody is phoning it in. And yet, the whole thing just feels lifeless. This is not to say the roles themselves don’t have issues. Tom Shaw specifically comes across as a mostly cartoonish villain. He’s the one that seemingly is out to get Jewell, but we never get any real understand of why that is. He's just the bad guy.
Richard Jewell provides a mostly accurate retelling of events, but provides little to no insight into them.
On the other side of things, while Richard Jewell is certainly a sympathetic protagonist, it feels like he may not have been the best avatar for this story. Events largely happen to him, and he takes no real active role. While this may be true to life for the soft-spoken man, it ultimately does little service to the story, and that lack of agency is really only emphasized by the act that we never truly see behind the curtain of the forces that are doing this to him.
The story of Richard Jewell may be interesting, but the film doesn't have anything of particular interest to say about it. There are certainly some potential themes set up in Richard Jewell, but they're never fully explored. All of the major characters are presented in the beginning as frustrated people who believe they are worthy of greater things than what they have achieved, and yet, there is no great statement made about ambition.
It’s unclear exactly why Richard Jewell exists as a movie.
Richard Jewell clearly points the finger at the FBI and the media for their rush to judgment and the public skewering that came with it, so this could be a statement against these institutions. But by never taking the story beyond a single federal agent and a single reporter, the movie doesn’t place blame with institutions so much as with a pair of bad actors.
Was Richard Jewell an unfortunate man who did nothing wrong but try to save lives, and got screwed for it? Absolutely. But while it may be that this two hour Clint Eastwood movie was simply designed to relay this fact to a generation that may not be familiar with the event, it seems unlikely that the audience being targeted is going to pay much mind to a two-hour Clint Eastwood movie.
Beyond all that, Richard Jewell is at least competently made on a technical level ?— though some editing choices are odd. The main events of the film only cover about three months of time, but certain cuts jump around in a jarring fashion. Minor characters seem to appear with zero introduction, and then disappear just as quickly and are never seen again. Certain arcs, specifically Kathy Scruggs', feel truncated. Either some nuance was lost in the edit, or some character moments are simply unjustified.
The finale is largely anticlimactic and unsatisfying as well, with part of this being because the actual end to the story of Richard Jewell is equally anticlimactic and unsatisfying. But it never feels like that’s part of the point either.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Richard Jewell, than the movie does a successful job of relaying the substance of the events, which is knowledge worth having. However, if you’re looking for anything beyond that, it won’t be found here.
In the end, Richard Jewell the movie has nothing to say beyond the fact that Richard Jewell the man deserved better. You’ll find few if any who will disagree with that sentiment today, and with the film there's even a new layer added. Richard Jewell deserved better than Richard Jewell.