Richard Jewell is his thirties and lives with his mum. He’s overweight, inarticulate and has a tendency to talk too much. His ideal job would be as a cop, but he keeps getting fired from security jobs for overzealousness – most recently on a Campus where he broke into students’ rooms looking for beer and carried out illegal road patrols.
But don’t worry, we’re in Georgia, its 1996 and the Olympics are coming to town. Richard gets a job as a security guard and goes about it with his usual over-officiousness – telling everyone else what to do and busting groups of kids for drinking alcohol. As the entire stadium dances along to the Macarena – 1996 has a lot to answer for – Richard discovers a discarded rucksack. He calls in the police who find three nail bombs.
Richard is lauded as a hero, but then an ambitious newspaper reporter, literally in bed with a suspicious FBI agent, points the finger of blame on Richard. Doesn’t he fit the profile of a lone bomber? Isn’t he a just, well, weird? Before long, the press are camping on Richard’s doorstep, and the FBI are inviting him in to help with their inquiries.
Richard needs a lawyer, quick. He employs Watson Bryant, a misanthropist who has a poster on his wall saying something like “I distrust terrorists less than I distrust the government”. Crucially, Richard and Bryant briefly worked together, when Richard cleaned the desks and took out the trash, and Bryant was the only person there who treated him like a human being.
At first Bryant isn’t sure whether Richard is innocent, but, as before, he is prepared to trust him. Besides which, he is always quick to trust the instincts of Nadya, his assistant (and soon to be his lover) who “tells me what to do”. Nadya has an Eastern European accent and has personal experience of an authoritarian states. And, she asks, do you really think it doesn’t happen here?
There’s enough here to make a great film: a real-life case of injustice in the face of an uncaring media and state, and an A-list case: next to Paul Walter Hauser as Richard, and Sam Rockwell hamming it up as Bryant, there’s Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde. And yet there’s something about it that never raises it above a decent enough tv movie.
Firstly, its too slow and ponderous. We spend way too much time in scenes which don’t let us know anything new. Which is a problem, because from the beginning we pretty much know what’s going to happen. Not necessarily because we remember the historical events – I’m ashamed to say that I don’t at all – but because its not the sort of film that throws us curveballs or finds innocent men guilty.
And, this being Un Film de Clint Eastwood, there’s always a dollop of unnecessary sentimentality. Whether its Richard’s mother making a teary televised plea for her son, or Jewell himself suddenly losing his feelings of deference and telling his FBI interrogators some home truths, there are a few too many scenes which are more interested in pulling on the audience’s heart strings that in relating what really happened.
Which brings us to what may be the biggest problem of all. Olivia Wilde plays an unscrupulous journalist who sleeps her way to success, gaining scoops from one-off sexual partners. The film is supposed to be based on a true story, and yet it seems to be absolutely clear that this is a defamation of the (conveniently dead) woman who is being depicted.
Leaving aside the disturbing sexism behind such an editorial decision, it puts the whole authenticity of the film into question. The film’s power lies on its exposure of a horrific real life miscarriage of justice. Yet if we know that it is using poetic license in one area, how can we truly believe anything that it has to say?
Richard Jewell has some great scenes, and fine acting, and yet these great parts never quite add up to a satisfying whole. It is most certainly not a bad film, but it is one that leaves you thinking that with a better script and more ambitious direction (sorry, Clint), maybe it could have delivered much more than it actually does.