For the first fifteen minutes or so, I worried that Richard Jewell was going to be little more than director Clint Eastwood caricaturizing law-enforcement and the media in some sort of dramatization of conservative conspiracy theories. But as it progresses, it finds its footing, and by the end it, like Richard, has won us over.
The film is better than some of Eastwood’s more recent fare, though not quite on par with Million Dollar Baby or Unforgiven. The success of both those films suggests that Eastwood is at his best when he recognizes complexity or ambiguity within conventional genre material. Richard Jewell fits that mold since it is structured around the beats of a police procedural with the gravitas of a false accusation narrative.
While one might assume that since Eastwood’s name is attached to the project that the false accusation would be grounded in political prejudices, the film actually soft pedals its latent libertarian themes. Yes, Richard questions the FBI about whether or not the NRA is a “fringe” organization, and yes the media (as represented by the Atlanta Journal Constitution) is smug and reckless. But in a telling exchange, Richard tells the FBI that sometimes those bad guys (i.e. terrorists) look just like us (by which one presumes he means white).
That exchange doesn’t appear meant to color Richard as a racist; if anything, it is a reminder of how quickly thoughts and expressions pass from normal in one decade to polarizing in the next. It does, however, provide nuance to the film’s overall theme about judging based on appearances. People judge Richard because he fits a profile, but he himself assumes the real criminal is someone who fits another, albeit different, profile. Also, anyone with a modicum of political honesty can see a relatively short and direct line between the profiling that the FBI and media use to paint him as guilty and more draconian policies such as stop-and-frisk that in essence codify whom it is okay to be prejudiced against.
Richard Jewell is elevated by a superb performance from Paul Walter Hauser as the innocent man wrongly accused. A script can be designed to win acting awards in many ways. Here, Hauser is asked to internalize all the emotions we assume Richard feels in all but one scene. Thus, when Richard finally lets his guard down, what we see has more force than it would if he (rather than his mother or lawyer) was the one constantly pointing out the injustices perpetrated against him.
Richard in fact defends the FBI, much to the anger of his mother and exasperation of his lawyer. Does he not see that they are laughing at his provincial, pro law-and-order persona? It turns out that he does, but as a somewhat hefty person, he has internalized years of scorn, abuse, and ridicule. He’s also swallowed the party line that America is a meritocracy, so he truly imagines that doing the right thing will help others see past his appearance and finally earn him the respect he has been giving to others all his life.
There is a certain amount of chutzpah in suggesting (as I believe the script does) that the key to understanding this story is that it is less about prejudice against conservatives or liberals than it is about prejudice against fat people. Sometimes chutzpah pays off, though. Whether Richard is a security guard on a campus or part of the team at the Olympics, those whom he interacts with are quick to challenge him because he doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what authority should look like. Those for whom he works tend to believe the worst of him, making him vulnerable to complaints and false accusations. The film presents the events following the Atlanta bombing as being different in scope than what Richard has experienced his whole life, but certainly not different in kind. It is the same old shit, and it is rolling downhill onto the people who have been asked to eat it all their lives.
When the events are framed that way, Richard’s cooperation with law-enforcement takes on a nobility that is often mistaken for weakness. Richard’s lawyer knows he couldn’t have done the crime he was accused of because he walks the route between the bombing site and the site of the terrorist’s phone call and does some simple math. But perhaps a more telling sign of his innocence comes in the opening scene, long before the Olympics, when Richard is caught eavesdropping on a phone call at work. He immediately confesses and apologizes, stating he was not brought up to act that way. In other words, Richard isn’t wired to lie brazenly to authority. At heart, he wants people to like him, and he feels the best way to make that happen is to be kind and respectful and to try harder.
In another revealing scene, Richard gives a bottle of water to a pregnant woman at the Olympic grounds. His reason? It is hot, and he knows that the elderly and the pregnant are in greater danger of becoming dehydrated. Like most of Richard’s good deeds, this one is met with suspicion rather than appreciation. The most important way the country has changed, Eastwood’s film argues, is not in becoming more or less conservative or liberal; it is in becoming more impatient, more judgmental, and less willing to acknowledge the good deeds of those who don’t conform to our preconceived notions of what good looks like.