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For Better and Worse, ‘Richard Jewell’ Is Peak Clint Eastwood

The tale of the man who found a bomb in an Atlanta park in 1996 fits with the director’s late-era work—‘American Sniper,’ ‘Sully,’ and ‘The 15:17 to Paris’—as yet another film that revisits a moment in history, albeit with its mind already made up

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

As the title character of Richard Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser has a round, placid face and thin, avid eyes. He’s cherubic at a distance but weirdly intense up close, with the kind of hard stare you find on a firing range. In his film appearances so far, Hauser—a 33-year-old minister’s son from Grand Rapids, Michigan—has specialized in a very particular form of American grotesquerie, playing characters who might best be described (or else cheerfully introduce themselves) as “white trash.” In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, he cut a vividly vicious figure as a white supremacist with the unlikely name of Ivanhoe; in I, Tonya, he was superbly cast as Shawn Eckardt, bodyguard to Tonya Harding and convicted fixer in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. A real-life loser figure parodied on Saturday Night Live by Chris Farley, Eckardt lived and died in ignominy, but Hauser’s performance was unexpectedly shaded, playing the character not as a craven goon but an almost serenely delusional fabulist in thrall to his invented secret-agent backstory.

The gap between appearance and self-perception is a rich subject for drama, and as long as Richard Jewell is engaged with this theme, it’s an interesting movie—a meditation on the exhilaration and peril of having greatness thrust upon you and then having to live up to it in the public eye. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood, who covered thematically similar territory in American Sniper, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris to the point where the four films could almost be considered a kind of quadrilogy. They’re all fact-based docudramas about men cast—whether by fate, circumstance, or their own ineluctable sense of purpose—as protectors in our post-9/11 moment when the institution of heroism has become unfathomably complicated, especially in the United States. In these films, Eastwood addresses questions of duty and sacrifice through the stories of men who indisputably rose to their respective occasions: an overseas war zone; a crashing commercial airliner; bomb scares on a high-speed train, and the Olympic Games. The results are thrillers that pull double duty as victory laps.

It’s been more than 25 years since Unforgiven, a film that gave off distinctly valedictory vibes and yet turned out to be anything but the end of Eastwood’s career; rather, it kicked off a period in which he’s been reclaimed as a titan of American cinema and one of the great avatars of “late style”—a concept pioneered by Edward Said apprising the serene, deceptive effortlessness of old masters in the service of complex, contradictory themes. For those who’ve bought into the myth of Clint’s mastery, Richard Jewell has all the hallmarks of a triumph; for those who mostly see expediency in his famously speedy production methods and/or take issue with his unrepentant registered-libertarian ideology, it’s equally illustrative and not remotely designed to change minds.

Hauser is Richard Jewell’s most persuasive asset, and Eastwood shows considerable trust in his star, letting him fully inhabit the contradictions of a man who performatively models a form of meek-shall-inherit humility—the “sirs” and “ma’ams” of the proverbial “well-brought-up boy”—while visibly seething with the fever of authoritarianism. While working as a janitor at a small-time law firm, Richard strikes up a friendship with an easily agitated but fundamentally decent attorney, Watson Bryant (a superb Sam Rockwell), who recognizes Richard’s fantasies of wearing a real badge and tries to steer him away from the bullying side of the law-and-order complex. “Don’t become an asshole,” he warns on Richard’s last day, after which we cut to a well-heeled campus dormitory where our protagonist—newly deputized as a uniformed security guard—forces entry into some wasteoid’s room to investigate claims of underage drinking. Later, during a meeting with the college’s stuffy dean, we learn that Richard has been serving and protecting above his pay grade, pulling over motorists on local highways. Did he forget Watson’s advice? Or is this kind of behavior the birthright of those yearning to work behind the thin blue line?

In 2009, Jody Hill and Seth Rogen satirized this precise mind-set with Observe and Report, a film about a sociopathic mall cop just looking for an excuse to crack heads. The film was a millennial attempt to recapture the edgy, caustic commentary of Taxi Driver and an admirably bleak mainstream comedy. Eastwood, whose social commentary tends to be more po-faced, doesn’t go in this direction, shrugging off Richard’s zealousness as a by-product of his protectiveness—a hardwired impulse that the movie dramatizes without satisfactorily examining. But the movie doesn’t have to, because its namesake’s bona fides precede it: We know that Richard is going to discover a knapsack rigged with explosives and in the process minimize the casualties of a potential massacre.

The scene leading up to the bomb’s discovery and remote detonation is superbly handled by Eastwood and his editors, whose cutting patterns are synced precisely to Richard’s paranoia; the action has the same frenetic lucidity of the plane’s descent into the Hudson river in Sully or the close-quarters train-compartment combat that closes out The 15:17 to Paris.

From Hauser’s performance on down, Richard Jewell excels as documentary-style recreation—cultural anthropologists will appreciate the myriad shots of wasted, cowboy-hatted Atlantans attempting the Macarena—but starts to get seriously clumsy when conjuring up its own set of alternate facts. As the FBI agent Tom Shaw, Jon Hamm is playing a fictional character—a composite of the various investigators who ran the case out of the bureau’s Atlanta field office with Richard as their number one suspect—while as Journal-Constitution writer Kathy Scruggs, Olivia Wilde may as well be. Scruggs’s colleagues have defended the late writer (who died in 2001 at the age of 42) as an honorable journalist far removed from the exhibitionistic, ethically dubious hustler in Jewell who trades sexual favors for stories, calling Shaw’s bluff to “fuck [a name] out of him” and inaugurating Richard’s long-running ordeal as a cable news mainstay and late-night punch line.

Fidelity to the facts is not in and of itself a prerequisite for historical drama, although it’s ironic that screenwriter Billy Ray is best known for his excellent 2003 film Shattered Glass, about a disgraced journalist who was caught fabricating events for magazine features. The slanted angle of Richard Jewell’s dramaturgy is the sort of thing that Eastwood fans will defend using the “omelettes to break eggs” defense—you can’t truly produce a movie about a man who feels persecuted by the big, bad institutions of government and mass media without resorting to fabulation, glib, and sniggering sexism, the argument may go.

They’re welcome to hold that line, just as they were with American Sniper, which glossed over the more appalling views of its sharpshooting subject. And yet to pretend that Eastwood is the first or worst offender in this department is its own form of ahistorical laziness. History has been disfigured by other filmmakers without a fraction of Clint’s skill or convictions, but there’s a difference between acknowledging a low bar and praising somebody for not even trying to vault over it. In lieu of a more rigorous, systemic critique, Eastwood encourages Hamm and Wilde to stylize themselves into caricatures, all to better sell the theme that their respective institutions—big government and the mainstream media—are venal and untrustworthy. These attitudes absolutely serve the material insofar as they’re things that Richard believes, or at least forced to accept over the course of his ordeal.

There is another version of this movie that would do more to show how Richard’s extracurricular activities—and his large gun collection—could reasonably be seen as red flags by investigators feeling pressure to locate a suspect ASAP. Another filmmaker might have juxtaposed the “frustrated white man” profiling with evidence of embedded and widespread police and FBI prejudices against African Americans or called attention to the right-wing motives of the man ultimately convicted of the deed, Eric Rudolph, a homophobic, anti-abortion Christian extremist. But Eastwood isn’t interested these things—not enough to screw with his conclusions, anyway. The little bit of nuance that does come through, aided immeasurably by Hauser’s acting, is located in Richard’s gradual alienation from the law enforcement machine he so fervently wishes to connect with. With every shady interrogation tactic and invasive search detail, the FBI aren’t just violating Richard’s privacy—they’re breaking his heart, to the point where the film starts to almost feel like a radicalization narrative.

It’s worth thinking about Eastwood’s decision to make Richard Jewell now, in a moment when the persecution complexes of many white American males are in full bloom; although the film is a period piece, its message seems to be that, thanks to the unscrupulous purveyors of Fake News, any old everyday American could be the target for character assassination. In Sully, Eastwood used Tom Hanks as the face of American Exceptionalism, a choice that muted the wing-nuttery of the final scenes, in which skeptical emissaries from the National Transportation Safety Board dare to challenge Sully’s decision-making before fully vindicating him. But Hauser’s proletarian physique and plausible anonymity fully activates the material’s reactionary potential, with the character’s ordeal—a genuine travesty testifying to the FBI’s ineptitude—inflated to the scope of a symbolic martyrdom. “Are you ready to start fighting back?” Watson queries Richard late in the film, with Rockwell selling the hell out of the line’s antiestablishment defiance, turning a question into a rallying cry.

In some ways, Richard Jewell feels like the least of Eastwood’s late quartet, lacking the raw power of American Sniper or the sly comedy of Sully; it’s also far less bizarre than The 15:17 to Paris—my personal choice for the strangest American studio movie of the decade—and thus less fun to deconstruct. (The scene in the latter where the characters, who are all real people playing themselves, lazily contemplate buying gelato near the Trevi fountain is authentically surreal.) Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Richard Jewell, either. Its politics and pandering are part of its overall package; it knows its audience, and (hopefully) vice versa.