Clint Eastwood’s late-career directorial swing has been defined by stories that feel ripped out of your grandfather’s chain emails. Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, American Sniper and even The Mule all featured stories told from ethical and aesthetic viewpoints that bemoan “lost values” or “truth and justice” — essentially a world where men were blameless. Eastwood makes the equivalent of Hallmark movies for the Fox News version of the “everyman” — nominated for awards out of respect for Eastwood’s career and still-formidable talents as a storyteller, but ultimately unable to mine particularly deep thematic depth. Eastwood’s general shallowness is, frankly, why the political shadings of his stories end up at top of the conversations about them.
That said: Sometimes Hallmark movies are pretty enjoyable, and Richard Jewell is Eastwood’s best in decades mostly because he has a phenomenal cast who make the characters shine. Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell, a security guard with a history of overzealous policing, having been fired from a college for taking his treatment of wayward students a little too far. The first act of the movie sets Jewell up as an interesting, flawed protagonist (in ways that I admit likely sound less “flawed” to Eastwood’s target audience). When the Olympics come to Atlanta, Jewell discovers and partially foils a bomb plot, his actions saving countless lives who would’ve otherwise been killed in the blast.
Unfortunately, Jewell ends up a suspect in the FBI investigation — an investigation that leaks to the press and causes Jewell and his mother (Kathy Bates) personal hardship in the process. Jewell hires an old friend, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), to be his defense attorney. The chemistry between Rockwell and Hauser shines, as Bryant quickly comes to realize that Jewell is in over his head and completely unaware of the stakes. Really, these two are a great double-act. They hold the movie together once the plot turns and the bombing is over with, as it kind of descends into lethargic movie-of-the-week pablum. Even the climactic “You can’t accuse me of something I didn’t do, government!” speech is decent thanks to Hauser.
So it’s watchable and even very good in parts. Unlike The Mule, which descended into complete woe-is-me territory, Jewell is content to coast along like other small-time legal thrillers. Does it dive into Eastwood’s usual schtick? Yeah, sure. Particularly frustrating is the “har har, dumb journalists” stuff at the expense of the real-life Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), portrayed here as a woman willing to do anything (wink wink) for a scoop. To Wilde’s credit, she plays the role big — so big that it doesn’t seem to fit with the otherwise straightforward approach everyone else in the cast takes with their characters. Wilde is a woefully underrated actress who doesn’t get enough credit (and an excellent director, too), who appropriately embraces the arch side of her role. Does it rub me the wrong way politically? Yes. I’ve read enough of those chain emails to know this isn’t satire. Is she fun to watch? Definitely.
Really, though, this is Hauser’s show through and through. He’s had an interesting streak of awards-favorite films in the past few years with I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman (with stints in Late Night and Super Troopers 2), and it’s nice to see him continue his subtle streak. His portrayal of Jewell is both likable and flawed. His heroism comes from the part of himself that often gets him into trouble. Hauser manages to be interesting even when the plot eventually contorts itself around political allegories that feel natural to the drama of the film itself.
Eastwood knows where his financial base is and makes movies to appeal to them. The days of him making instant classics are past, but sometimes he still uses his talents to make something enjoyable like Richard Jewell.