‘Richard Jewell’ movie review: Polarizing film delivers strong performances

Clint Eastwood’s latest puts the veteran director’s polished spin on a chilling true story of wrongful accusation. “Richard Jewell” reexamines the saga of the late Atlanta security guard who, during the 1996 Olympics, was the first to spot and report a suspicious bag that detonated, killing one and injuring over 100 others. Like most of Eastwood’s work (with the exception of last year’s disastrous “The 15:17 to Paris”), it’s a tightly paced feature, with strong performances all around. It’s also one of the season’s most politically polarized films.

Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”) finds the nuance and humanity in Jewell, a man whose deep enthusiasm for law enforcement often spilled over into intrusion and obnoxiousness. Fired from one campus security job for overstepping his authority and bullying college kids, he finds new purpose in his Olympics gig — and, briefly, the heroism he’s been longing for. Finally, his constant paranoia pays off when he spots and reports the bag, saving countless lives. Jewell, we are shown, is just a good old boy, living with his proud mama (Kathy Bates) and drinking Coca-Cola, which seems to have heavily sponsored this Atlanta-shot film.

Sam Rockwell (who might want to branch out one of these days) plays a folksy small-time lawyer who knows Jewell from his early days in security. He jumps in to defend the man when no one else will, and that’s when Eastwood’s movie begins to wear its message fairly blatantly on its sleeve.

The real enemies in “Richard Jewell” will be familiar to any regular Twitter reader today: The duplicitous FBI, as embodied by Jon Hamm’s huffy agent character, and the rapacious media, particularly Olivia Wilde as real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs (whose sleazy portrayal is already being protested by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

So sympathetic is the film to Jewell’s character that it veers into some odd overlap with the neglected, isolated protagonist of “Joker.” “That fat f - - k who lives with his mother,” one official sneers about Jewell as they’re mulling his guilt. Jewell hoards guns at home, and is indignant when someone suggests the NRA is a fringe group. He’s so routinely betrayed by the government that’s supposed to be protecting him that his lawyer has to berate him into standing up to the feds. (As if to underline the point, a poster in Rockwell’s office reads “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.”)

The director gives an effectively claustrophobic portrayal of the way Jewell’s life, and his mother’s, were torn apart by his being wrongfully profiled as a terrorist. I’d like to think Eastwood might be inspired to examine other true stories of the falsely accused in America, most of whom belong to a different demographic — but I’m not holding my breath.

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