In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
Richard Jewell comes out today and as these things go, controversy has already erupted across he even-handed and totally sane place we call Film Twitter. I’m exhausted by it already. In fact, I am exhausted by pretty much all of film discourse lately, and frankly, I just can’t bring myself to care at all about this specific piece of cultural pushback. I am not interested in defending the honor of a newspaper that opportunistically destroyed an innocent man using bad information. I’m even less interested in defending a movie that employs hosts of inaccuracies in telling a cautionary tale specifically about accuracy in reporting. Most of all, I am powerfully disinterested in discussing this movie as if it’s anything more than a mediocre distraction. Because that’s what Richard Jewell is: a very, very mediocre film.
So now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to work. The most recent and likely final leg in the directorial career of one Clint Eastwood is a good idea on paper: tell the true stories of normal people acting heroically when faced with extraordinary circumstances. He did it first with American Sniper, followed it up with Sully, and then with The 15:17 to Paris. He took a break with last year’s The Mule (also a true story, but less about a hero and more about a guy getting in over his head in the world of crime), but now he’s back with Richard Jewell, the story of the security guard whose discovery of a bomb placed at Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. Here’s how it went down: Jewell discovered the bomb, alerted authorities, and helped to clear the crowd away from the blast, placing himself in potential mortal danger to do so. After being hailed as a hero for a few days, it leaked that the FBI was investigating Jewell as a suspect in the bombing. The thing is, it’s standard procedure in any investigation for the authorities to take a look at those with close proximity to the crime. In the case of Jewell, however, the media got wind of the FBI’s investigation and made it front page news. Soon, Jewell’s life was in shambles, and neither the media nor law enforcement were able to do much else besides double down on their course of action, lest they look fallible.
It’s a sad story, and its one that, in an era where media regularly makes functional truth out of pure lies, should be an urgent one. I get the sense the Richard Jewell truly believes itself to be a necessary and cutting edge piece of “truth to power” entertainment, but in action it’s just not. It’s a sloppily made, slapdash affair that coasts entirely on a handful of excellent performances and the goodwill afforded to it by its intended audience (dads/New York Post subscribers).
As a director, Eastwood has lost most of his luster. He famous for being a bit of a ”one take Jake,” choosing to get his footage quickly and then cut it into something workable later. This is a good thing if you want to be prolific (really, how else would a man nearing his 90s continue to pump out movies on a yearly basis?), but it’s proven to be a bad thing in terms of directorial style. Richard Jewell is mind-numbingly flat for most of its runtime. Just a camera pointed at a scene and that’s it. A couple of moments admittedly rise above this style, with a notable shot following Jewell out his front door and through a barrage of reporters, but sequences like that one only serve to highlight how lifeless the bulk of the film looks. And Eastwood’s lack of attention to detail is increasingly on the decline. I’ve always defended the baby doll oversight in American Sniper (the real baby was sick that day!), but that doesn’t make it any less noticeable. There are many instances of similar “it’ll do” choices in Richard Jewell, the most egregious being a large crowd of concert goers who are so clearly not listening to the song playing (or any song, really) that you almost don’t notice that many of them are watching the leading actors intently or, barring that, staring directly into the camera.
If there’s a reason to see this movie, and there are a few, it’s for the titular performance from Paul Walter Hauser. Hauser is not at all your typical leading man, and carries more than a passing resemblance to the real life Jewell. What makes his performance so exceptional (with credit to the writing here as well) is the fact that Jewell was a very weird dude. As depicted here, he’s not Hollywood-ized in any of the typical ways. He’s awkward, seems physically uncomfortable at all times, and is absolutely obsessed with the tactical minutiae of law enforcement and firearms on the whole. All things considered, he’s kinda the perfect suspect, and the film doesn’t shy away from that fact. Commendably, it requests that we look beyond stereotypes and go solely with facts (while simultaneously employing plenty of lame stereotypes and wonky “facts” of its own). It was a smart move to place a relative unknown in the role, and in doing so, we get a star-making performance from the guy I first recognized as “the Juggalo kid from that one episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Sam Rockwell is fantastic, as always, as Jewell’s hard-edged (but internally soft) lawyer, while the divine Kathy Bates is severely underused as Jewell’s Tupperware-toting mother Bobi. Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, the reporter whose depiction is at the center of the controversy surrounding this film. While the criticisms are certainly valid and worth hearing, I reiterate my disinclination to put any emotion into it. Scruggs is not the most densely written character, but Wilde is having an infectious amount of fun. Then there’s Jon Hamm as the one FBI agent who truly, madly, deeply believes in Jewell’s guilt. It’s a great role for Hamm. When he and Rockwell are given license to bitch at one another over Jewell’s fate, the film hits its highest notes.
All in all, Richard Jewell is the exact movie it’s purported to be. Missed opportunities and inconsistent messaging, in conjunction with extremely bland direction keep it from soaring, but as it is, it never stops being entertaining (especially when it dips into moments of unintended silliness). Come for the acting, stay for the birth of a new star, and leave before getting too mad about a movie that really isn’t worth much beyond the two hours it takes to watch it.
Richard Jewell opens in Philly theaters today.