Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
USA, 2019. 75 Year Plan Productions, Appian Way, Misher Films, The Malpaso Company, Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner and the book The Suspect by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. Cinematography by Yves Belanger. Produced by Jennifer Davisson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood, Jonah Hill, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Tim Moore. Music by Arturo Sandoval. Production Design by Kevin Ishioka. Costume Design by Deborah Hopper. Film Editing by Joel Cox. Academy Awards 2019. AFI Film of the Year 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019.
The true story of the man who spotted a bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Park before it detonated is brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood as part of his late-career collection of Great Men In Uniform movies. Richard Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser) longs to be a success in law enforcement but can’t quite cut it, in the mid-eighties losing his position in the sheriff’s department and taking a job as a campus security guard, where his zeal for keeping kids in line makes him unpopular very quickly. With the 1996 Summer Olympics coming to Atlanta, he takes a job working security in the hopes that it will help him get a leg up on his ambitions, and his paranoia about men with backpacks eventually comes in handy when, during a concert in the park, he finds a suspicious bag under a bench that authorities realize is packed with explosives. The bomb goes off before the security team can fully clear the area and two people die, but Jewell’s efforts prevented far more casualties and quickly make him a hero on national television. When the FBI takes over to investigate (headed by Jon Hamm, who spends the whole movie looking like he smelled something bad), they easily fall for the possibility that Jewell planted the bomb himself: overweight and underpaid, a loner who lives with his mom and is desperate to get his career back on track, Jewell fits a narrative that the feds create and the press promotes. The public easily swallows the story on the front page, as that loveable old coot behind the camera reminds us that people will tear you down as soon as build you up in the name of their own entertainment. The article that causes all the ruckus is hastily co-written by an ambitious reporter (Olivia Wilde) who writes it before anything can be verified, having happily knocked knees with the FBI to get classified information out of them (the presentation of the late Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs as someone who fucks a guy for a good story has met with a great deal of controversy, and understandably so considering she’s not here to defend herself, but to watch it happen in the movie there’s no denying that the casting helps, I can’t find it offensive that a human being would want Jon Hamm for more than just his secrets). Now Jewell’s life is a constant nightmare, cameras flashing outside his house and searches made of his home, his greatest hope a lawyer (Sam Rockwell) whose career has seen better days and who devotes himself entirely to clearing his client’s name. Eastwood’s command of storytelling doesn’t fail him here, he has an exceptional power for calmly moving a plot from scene to scene without it ever feeling he’s spoon-feeding you the information. The sense of process is the best thing about this sometimes absorbing film, far more effective than the times it hits melodrama and attempts genuine pathos; Kathy Bates (who plays Jewell’s mother) is one of American cinemas’ most incredible character actors and elicits genuine sympathy, but there’s only so much she can do with the stilted dialogue and awkwardly blocked situations her character finds herself in. Most aggravating, though, is that the entire supporting cast runs rings around Hauser, who gives a confused and illogical performance as the title character, sometimes sincere but often seeming like he’s parodying the man in a MadTV skit. Hauser lacks the charisma to carry the film on his own, and unlike his hilarious turn in I, Tonya it’s hard to know how much of this portrayal is meant for laughs, he spends every scene looking like he’s trying not to burp and never quite nails the middle ground between the sweet naivete and genuine decency that the real man likely possessed. The script doesn’t do Hauser any favours either, always letting us know how badly he’s being treated by the outside world but rarely giving us much insight into who he is, one scene of him indulging in a mad rage doesn’t quite equal a payoff for the investment we have made in him. Eastwood has basically remade Sully, another film about how big societies (and big governments) don’t work and how good men can’t do good things in a world where everyone gets to enforce their opinion, but he doesn’t give it the dramatic zip that the highly superior Hanks film had, nor does it have the insightful tenderness of superior works like Gran Torino or The Mule.