Though his recent work has been maligned by many, a change from his earlier work which was released to widespread acclaim and two Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture, late-period Clint Eastwood has continued to deliver for me. It is true that the acting hasn’t been quite on par with the golden streak he had from Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby that delivered a slew of memorable performances, and when his films from the last decade have featured a strong performance, it has often seemed better in comparison to some that are strangely lacking considering the talent behind them, but, acting aside, he has continued to grapple with societal issues with the skill of a seasoned filmmaker. His efficient style of filmmaking, minimizing the amount of times scenes are re-shot and avoiding rehearsals, is perhaps the reason for some outright bad performances from actors who don’t thrive in that sort of situation, but it has allowed him to have an immense output that outpaces most directors a quarter of his age and, with that sort of output, it would follow that not all of them would be exemplary. Thankfully, Eastwood closes out another decade of work with one of the stronger entries into his filmography, and with Richard Jewell, he delivers a film that has escaped the poor performances that has plagued much of his recent work.
Richard Jewell finds Eastwood telling the story of its titular character, a security guard, played by Paul Walter Hauser, whose discovery of a bomb in Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics significantly decreased the casualties that may have otherwise occurred, though two still died as a result of the bomb and 111 more were injured. In the aftermath of the bombing, Richard Jewell came under investigation from the FBI as a suspect for the bombing and was badgered by the news media as a result despite his actual innocence. Jewell had a history of abusing his power, having been a security guard at a university where he overstepped his authority to pull cars over and barge into dormitories, though later he seemed to have turned around and decided to stay in his lane. Throughout the film, as the FBI investigated him in ways that were meant to trick Jewell into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit with blatant disregard for his rights. Jewell remained convinced they were on his side as fellow law enforcement, as if his time lording his power over students meant it was acceptable for all law enforcement to act without respecting the laws and people they were supposed to protect. Hauser perfectly captures the ignorance and earnestness of his protagonist as he goes through these encounters while his lawyer and his mother, wonderfully portrayed by Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, attempt to bring him to the reality of the situation and tell him that the people he admires most would throw him away without a moment’s hesitation.
Though it would seem Eastwood’s study of the responsibility of law enforcement, especially as they investigate a man with a criminal record despite his constant insistence that he respects the law, would lead Eastwood into a grey moral area, he seems content to stay well within the bounds of his usual struggles between what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong. Jon Hamm’s FBI agent ruthlessly guns for Jewell out of an anger that the bombing happened on his watch and perhaps a jealousy that he wasn’t the one who found it. He leaks information about the investigation, knowing it will make the investigation and Jewell’s life harder, in exchange for sex with a similarly aggressive journalist played by Olivia Wilde. In this exchange, Eastwood ignores the truth of actual events in favor of a simplified version that makes good and evil clearer by smearing actual people.
Still, for all the simplification that goes on, there is still a complexity to the film. There really was a Richard Jewell who was wrongfully accused of terrorism by the media and the government and he wasn’t the last person to face this sort of havoc from the institutions meant to protect. Had Jewell not tried to save lives, he may have been spared his own trip through hell and there is always a possibility that people with the best intentions, whether they be the person saving people from the bomb or the ones trying to bring justice to the terrorist who planted it, can make the wrong choices and face consequences that don’t fit their actions.