Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard who saved countless lives by finding an incendiary device on the grounds of the 1996 Olympic Games, had the misfortune of not fitting the script. He wasn’t a handsome, well-spoken hero, but a very regular guy; a heavyset loner with a gentle, quiet nature and a passion — some might say obsession — for law enforcement. Just days after being hailed as a hero, Jewell’s story took an unexpected turn: He became the FBI’s prime suspect in the bombing, and his life instantly became a waking nightmare.
“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s sturdy and only occasionally plodding drama, is one of those true-life stories that’s both highly cinematic and very tricky to pull off. It’s clear in the movie that Jewell didn’t commit the crime, but without a real suspect handy (Eric Rudolph, the actual bomber, wasn’t charged until some years later), Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray need some villains to create tension. And so they make them: the media — specifically, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — and the FBI.
While there’s no doubt that both made serious mistakes, “Richard Jewell” seems to be playing with a rather stacked deck. In particular, the depiction of real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) as sleeping with an FBI source (Jon Hamm) to get information rings lurid and false. (Scruggs, who died in 2001, isn’t here to defend herself, but the AJC is demanding that the filmmakers acknowledge that some of its content is invented for dramatic purposes. The film’s publicity materials specifically note that the equally compromised character played by Hamm was not based on an actual person.)
As always, though, Eastwood’s very good with actors, and the central trio of “Richard Jewell” make the film worth watching. Sam Rockwell, as Jewell’s mostly laid-back attorney, gives all his lines a loose, funny spin. Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s concerned mother, Bobi, makes a world from relatively few scenes, showing how quickly beaming pride turned to quiet heartbreak. And Paul Walter Hauser, who played the clueless knee-whacker in “I, Tonya,” makes Richard both authentically odd (note how he sometimes talks with his eyes closed) and genuinely touching. A man whose life’s goal was to be a police officer, Jewell sympathized with his accusers, wanting to help them, wanting to be one of them. “I’m law enforcement,” he says in the movie, in hopeful tones, “same as them.”
★★½ “Richard Jewell,” with Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm. Directed by Clint Eastwood, from a screenplay by Billy Ray. 131 minutes. Rated R for language, including some sexual references, and brief bloody images. Opens Dec. 13 at multiple theaters.