***/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B-
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.
Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray work from Marie Brenner's righteously angry VANITY FAIR essay "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell" and retain something of its spirit of balladry, albeit largely drained of the attendant sentimentalism, per Eastwood's house style. Paul Walter Hauser plays the eponymous hero, an Atlanta security guard for AT&T whose dreams of becoming a more respectable member of the law enforcement community (and history of pretending to be a traffic cop) come to a head when he emerges as a central figure in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Richard briefly becomes a national celebrity after his fastidiousness leads him to spot the bomb and help evacuate the park. But his relatively humble life, shared with his salt-of-the-earth mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), gets turned inside-out when the FBI, led by bored field agent Tom (Jon Hamm), begins to investigate him as a suspect upon receiving a bad tip and leaks the news to unscrupulous local crime reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), whose story gets widely syndicated. Before long, Bobi's beloved Tom Brokaw is slagging her son on live TV, and Richard's only hope is his old boss and attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).
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. Originally published: December 13, 2019.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Richard Jewell to Blu-ray in a 2.39:1, 1080p transfer; no plans have been announced for a physical 4K UHD release, despite the film being shot in and finished at 4K. (Blame the pitiful box-office, I guess.) DP Yves Bélanger uses a diffuse-focus look that weathers the resolution loss nicely, though, and there's a broad range of blacks in the toe of the image. Colours really pop during the two Centennial Park sequences, even the reds of the Coke cans that Richard passes out to police officers. If I have a criticism of this presentation, it's that flesh tones can look unrealistically pasty, and in fact there's sometimes a vague pink cast to the highlights that seems related. (Bright whites are almost nonexistent, but when they do appear they tend to clip.) Contrast is a little uneven, too, with Olivia Wilde's introductory scene, for example, lacking the depth of the scenes flanking it. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track--sorry, no Atmos like on Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris--is adequate to the movie's needs, which is to say that Richard Jewell is a talky affair with crisply-reproduced voices firmly anchored in the centre channel. Sometimes voices are too prioritized, through no fault of the disc but rather the sound mixing: Background din during the bomb set-piece is so accommodating of the dialogue that it never feels as if you're there among the revellers. I think the stage performers should be louder as well, although your mileage may vary.
Two HD featurettes, "The Making of Richard Jewell" and "The Real Story of Richard Jewell," supplement the main attraction, each running seven minutes in length. In the former, producer Jessica Meier testifies to Eastwood's peculiar enthusiasm for the project (he went after it with unusual gusto), which Eastwood himself says is about "a great American screw-over." Select cast and crew, including star Paul Walter Hauser and production designer Kevin Ishioka, touch on Eastwood's dedication to recreating reality--or his "exactment," as Hauser charmingly calls it. (The production actually went so far as to shoot the exteriors of Bobi Jewell's apartment complex at Bobi Jewell's apartment complex.) In the latter segment, Jon Hamm defends the railroading of Jewell as not "necessarily bad police work, it was just kind of incomplete police work." Naw, my dude, it was bad police work. And the film's own relitigation of Olivia Wilde's character was sloppy and misogynistic, though both mini-docs avoid the subject entirely. The real Bobi essentially gets the last word when she says, "The scary thing now is the world since Richard died has just gone, excuse me, Lord, to hell." Ain't that the truth. HiDef previews for the upcoming Tenet and In the Heights cue up on startup, while the BD also comes with a digital copy of Richard Jewell.
131 minutes; 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DVS 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Warner