Based on actual events, director Clint Eastwood pulls us through the long nightmare of Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser). We follow Jewell, a simple-minded man with a deep respect for authority, through his early years as a supply clerk in a law office and eventually as a failed sheriff’s deputy and campus security guard. At the law office, he is befriended by lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). On the college campus, he only upsets people.
All Jewell wants is to be one of the good guys, but after his numerous failures, the best he can do is work security for AT&T at that year’s Olympic Games. Leaving the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) for his first shift, he asks her, like a child, if watching audio equipment still counts as law enforcement. (Bates won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and is nominated for the Oscar in the same category.)
On the night of the bombing, Jewell almost calls in sick. But he drags himself to work anyway, identifying a suspicious package and insisting that it be properly investigated. Inside are three pipe bombs. Found too late, it goes off. Miraculously, only one person was killed and more than 100 injured. Even though the local police and FBI were also working that night, it was Jewell who saved lives. Suddenly, he’s the focus of national attention and praise.
Humiliated by his oversight, the on-scene FBI agent, Tom Shaw (John Hamm), needs to catch the bomber. The college administrator who fired Jewell suggests that Jewell fits a profile, and Shaw latches onto the idea. He wants Jewell to be the bomber so he can catch him and forgive himself. Late at night in a bar, he’s seduced by a reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), into sharing his suspicion. Looking to advance her career, she runs the story. As quickly as Jewell was a front-page hero, he becomes a front-page terrorist.
Reporters swarm outside Jewell’s apartment, sharks looking for blood. On TV, the newsmen Bobi adored stand ready to convict her son based on facts but lacking information. Jewell calls Bryant, the only lawyer he knows, for help. His reverence for the law often puts him at odds with the antiauthoritarian attorney, but after suffering one humiliation after another, Jewell finally finds himself ready to push back.
“His accusers are two of the most powerful forces in the world: the United States government and the media,” Bryant says at a press conference, neatly framing the conflict. We love a good David and Goliath story, and Eastwood delivers here in full and satisfying force. While Jewell is eventually vindicated, we feel every agonizing blow. The audience in my theater was completely invested in the story, whispering warnings and sympathy the entire time.
This a long movie, and the language throughout is coarse, but it’s never self-indulgent or excessive. I’ve seen several of this year’s most thoughtful and artistic movies, and I’ve seen a few of its most thrilling. But the story of Richard Jewell is the most haunting, powerful, and satisfying. (Warner Brothers)