One-line review: The nice guy who doesn’t finish last despite the odds against him.

This Clint Eastwood film is based on the real life of Richard Jewell, a security guard hailed as a national hero for detecting a bomb at one of the venues of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, only to be publicly vilified as the suspect soon after. Jewell, a gun enthusiast, openly obsessed with the power of being  cop, was an easy target because the FBI wanted to quickly quell public fears by arresting the culprit. Although Jewell was never charged, was exonerated, and received a settlement from the city, the public never forgot his guilty image, thanks to his trial by the media.  It was a burden he carried until his untimely death in 2007.  

Thanks to Eastwood, Jewell gets another shot at redemption and an unforgettable one. The film grabs you for many reasons. But topmost for me is Paul Walter Hauser’s casting and gut-wrenching performance as Richard Jewell. As an obese adult single man still living with his mother, he is smart enough to recognize the thinly veiled insults that come his way but doesn’t hit back. Instead, he helplessly says, “I can’t be anyone else but myself,” and he is a decent man. But luckily for him, the universe sends him two warriors, his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and his lawyer (Sam Rockwell). Why give a nice man these hurdles to begin with, then? How else would we have a story of hope and redemption and a superb Clint Eastwood film? Period. 

The film begins by giving us some insights into Jewell’s life and why he might fit the psychological profile of a bomber. He’s obsessed with policing and often oversteps his boundaries as a college security officer, for which he’s eventually fired. In this personal life, the unconditional love between him and his mother is the foundation of the film; it’s the safe haven that makes everything surmountable.

The Atlanta Olympics is a boom time for Jewell because security jobs are readily available, and he gets one at Centennial Park. In addition to keeping a hawk-eye on the minutest of threats, he’s equally attentive to people, handing out water bottles to pregnant mothers and cops. His colleagues like him, although they find him overbearing and annoying.  

Jewell notices a suspicious backpack and reports it to the cops. Thanks to his timely intervention, the public is cleared out and the bomb goes off with just one casualty. Jewell is an overnight hero, reaffirming his mother’s faith in his potential. The FBI under Tom Shaw (John Hamm) is in charge of the investigation, and based on a tip-off from the principal who fired him, the needle of suspicion soon points to Richard Jewell. In the meantime, the ambitious reporter and femme fatale Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Munn) seduces Shaw to reveal that Jewell is the suspect and promptly publishes this bit on the front page of the Atlanta Journal, and all hell breaks loose. 

The FBI must now act quickly to convict Jewell amidst the media frenzy. However, just when the FBI thinks they have trapped an unsuspecting Jewell (he is overly cooperative because he respects law and order) into revealing information that will implicate him, Jewell suspects something is wrong and calls the only lawyer he knows, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who used to work in the same company where Jewell was a janitor, and now has a private practice. 

The rest of the film is about the fearless Bryant’s fight to acquit Jewell, the toll of the intrusion by the FBI and the media on the Jewells, and his mother’s passionate plea about his innocence. Long after the public has forgotten the incident, the FBI quietly exonerates Jewell. Jewell receives a decent settlement and also gets his dream job as a cop. We learn of Jewell’s untimely death and the continuing friendship between his mother and lawyer from the closing credits. 

Eastwood shoots the film with minimum fuss; most of the film is shot inside Jewell’s house, his only refuge as the outside world hounds him. Jimmy Kimmel, when interviewing Houser, remembers camping outside Jewell’s house during the height of the controversy. Interestingly, the outdoor scenes, rather than providing relief from being crammed indoors, seem wooden and choreographed, and the film hits its stride only when indoors. And that is a testament to the acting prowess of the three leads, who are in top form. 

Eastwood also admits his relief when he cast Houser (Jonah Hill was an early contender before the film came to Eastwood). Eastwood hit gold because Houser looks like Jewell and is a brilliant actor. He conveys his softness and guile without losing his dignity. We root for him because we know despite being kicked around, he will bring out his steely interior sooner than later. 

Sam Rockwell is superb in a role that fits him perfectly. Rockwell is no stranger to swagger, but the small details are the mark of the great actor. Just watch him sitting on Jewell’s couch at the end of the day, and you can tell it’s been a long day or his laugh when he sees Jewell’s large cache of arms. Bates is also in familiar territory as the loving mother, but she has to balance loving her son unconditionally without compromising her principles. 

John Hamm delivers as the FBI agent who unwillingly has to let Jewell go for lack of evidence, but he’s not ready to admit his hunch was wrong. Olivia Wilde starts off as a one-dimensional, super-driven character but gets a chance to bring some depth to her role, but her screen time is limited. Her character is also the most controversial since the real Scruggs died from a drug overdose. Her supporters blast the film for portraying her as an unscrupulous journalist who will do anything for a story. Nina Arianda has a small role as Bryant’s kind girlfriend and secretary, but she shines with her expressive eyes. I wonder why this beauty, once hailed as Broadway’s next superstar, doesn’t get meatier roles.  

Clint Eastwood admits he’s drawn to underdog stories, and Billy Ray’s tight script keeps the film exciting even though we know the outcome. Jewell was honored with a plaque in the Centennial Olympic Park in  2019; I am sure the film played a part in reviving his memories. Better late than never. 

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