starring Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Paul Walter Hauser
written by Billy Ray, based on the article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell" by Marie Brenner
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Angelo Muredda You'd be hard-pressed to think of a more fateful intersection between director and biographical subject than Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell, which crystallizes the venerable American filmmaker's aesthetic and thematic interests of late. The infamous minimalist and chair-scolder--hyped to godly proportions in some corners of Film Twitter for his cool efficiency, scorned as a conservative propagandist by others--has been charged since the film's AFI Fest debut last month with cranking out ill-timed "Trumpian talking points" about the FBI and smearing a journalist's good name after her death. While some of the callouts are fairer than others, the uproar has distracted from the quiet dignity and formal strangeness of the work, which deepens Eastwood's recent interest in unlikely American newsmakers with asterisks beside their names and their acts of heroism by grounding itself in the awkward humanity of an even less immediately palatable figure than the inarticulate, gelato-eating Euro travellers who saved lives in The 15:17 to Paris.
Like The 15:17 to Paris before it, Richard Jewell is far weirder than the ripped-from-the-pages logline might suggest, and richer for it. The film's first act, brusquely sketching Richard's unimpressive life before the bombing, is a good case in point. It offers a prismatic, refreshingly ambivalent characterization of the kind of subject who doesn't usually get such an elevated treatment--treating this fat thirtysomething rent-a-cop with a bad moustache, ruddy skin, and questionable taste (ranging from violent arcade games to Kenny Rogers and The Anarchist Cookbook) with the same solemn curiosity Eastwood showed Chris Kyle in American Sniper. As in that film, Eastwood sharply cuts across vignettes of a life unfulfilled before the singular event that defines him--at one point using the same startling sound of gunfire at a shooting range as a transition from Richard unceremoniously losing his job. Such moments, like an odd two-hander where Watson lightly recoils from Richard's stilted body language as he hands him a Snickers bar at his desk, don't tell us what Richard is made of so much as they let us see how others view him and draw our own conclusions about whether he's an incorrigible try-hard with dreams of grandeur who uncomfortably looms over and badgers everyone he meets, or a socially awkward but harmless stickler for the rules, living by his personal code. Hauser is an incredible asset here, an inscrutable performer with great comic timing and peculiar dramatic instincts that make him a joy to watch thinking through things.
Eastwood is in his element with a less conspicuous and stylized version of the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and desaturated palette he's favoured in his late works. His fuss-free tracking shots, elegant blocking, and cross-cutting ratchet up the tension in the bombing sequence, not least because they're balanced against the embarrassingly minor human foibles on display all around, from the crowd's clumsy (and period-appropriate) dance to the "Macarena" to Richard's digestive distress at work. He gets a lot of mileage, too, out of the dingy police-interrogation room where Tom tries to wring a false confession out of Richard under the auspices of filming a training video. The bright white spotlight starkly strikes Richard's ugly white work polo and hat and brings out a haunted air in Hauser's face as he tiptoes between his eagerness to please his superiors with his gut instinct that he's being bullied by people who don't respect him as a colleague. Meanwhile, the camera slowly pushes in on his face, as if to mimic a deliberate man slowly parsing his options, as Richard realizes he has no intention of signing away his rights under false pretences, no matter how much he may yearn to impress his superiors in the cop tribe--especially if they look like Tom.
Much has been made of the movie's dodgy treatment of Scruggs, a real person who can't qualify or reject her characterization as an unserious reporter and insubstantial person who sleeps with her sources for information and rushes to destroy an innocent man's life with unsubstantiated gossip. That's a fair criticism of a cartoonishly thin character who isn't afforded the same shading as Richard or Watson, both of whom are allowed to be basically decent and interesting despite their respective hangups. The film's Scruggs is more concept than person, aided only by the genuinely demonic energy Wilde brings to the performance before her late reverse-heel turn.
Yet Wilde is right, too, to point to Richard Jewell's equal if not stronger disdain for Tom, who serves as the perfect broad-shouldered representative for the curdling of all of Richard's dreams, i.e., that his nonstandard masculinity might pay off into some sort of authority someday, and that he might eventually be worthy of police work and government service that matters. In one telling sequence before the bomb goes off, we cut from Tom and Kathy in the crowd, bonding over how they feel they were "meant for something better" than this procession of bad taste, to Richard angrily taking in his mother's humble home before he starts his shift, complaining that "the world owes you better than this." "This is what we got, so do your job," she retorts, articulating a version of the Eastwood libertarian ethos that doesn't suffer crybabies, whether they be genuinely hard-up, like Richard, or just complainers, like his hot and bored movie-star foils. Whatever one thinks of it as an expression of Eastwood's politics, that contrast captures in a nutshell what makes Richard Jewell an occasional delight in spite of its limitations--a rebuke to the mythos of the square-jawed American hero, and a celebration of the smalltime weirdos who do good both because of and in spite of the things that make them insufferable.