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"RICHARD JEWELL"
(2019) (Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Initially labeled a hero for saving people's lives at an Olympics event, a Georgia security guard soon finds himself the prime suspect, both by the FBI and the press.
PLOT:
It's 1996 and Richard Jewell (PAUL WALTER HAUSER) has just landed a job working security for the Olympic games being held in Atlanta. He's an overzealous cop wannabe and sometimes steps outside of his responsibilities, but is diligent about his work. And thus when he spots a suspicious-looking backpack beneath a bench at night in Centennial Park, he alerts real police officers who call in the bomb squad and confirm that it's an actual bomb. As Richard and others calmly try to get bystanders away from that area, the bomb explodes, killing two and injuring hundreds.

Not surprisingly, Richard is deemed a hero for his actions and appears in TV interviews and is even approached about a book deal. Knowing nothing about such matters, he contacts a lawyer he knew from a previous job a decade earlier, Watson Bryant (SAM ROCKWELL), for help with that. The lawyer, who's since opened his own one-man firm with his assistant girlfriend, Nadya (NINA ARIANDA), agrees to help Richard.

But before that can happen, the FBI is alerted that Richard's previous behavior now tied to this incident seems suspicious, and thus FBI field agents Tom Shaw (JON HAMM) and Dan Bennet (IAN GOMEZ) bring in Richard for questioning, but under false pretenses. Richard eventually gets wary of their behavior and calls Watson who comes to his rescue. Things get worse when local newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (OLIVIA WILDE) seduces Richard's name from Tom and soon everyone knows that the security guard is suddenly the prime suspect, including his mother, Bobi (KATHY BATES), with whom he still lives despite being in his thirties.

From that point on, and with both the press and feds putting pressure on Richard for a confession, Watson does what he can to prove his client's innocence, all while blasting those groups for railroading an innocent man.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Everyone knows the common advice-based phrase of "You only get one chance to make a first impression." In psychological terms, that relates to the mental image one or more people may have of you, or someone else, after the first exposure. It's sort of like imprinting that takes place with certain animals where whatever they see first is forever going to be the "momma."

For most people regarding Richard Jewell, the first impression was likely a good one. After all, he was heralded as the hero of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games bombing who found the device and most certainly helped save lives and others from serious injury. He went from essentially a nobody -- in the overall scheme of things happening around the globe -- to a world-famous figure.

And then it all quickly turned on him when it was revealed he was suddenly the prime suspect in the Fed's eyes as the mastermind behind the bombing. Public sentiment quickly reversed course and the media hounded him relentlessly, helping turn him from hero to villain in a matter of just a few days.

His tale now comes to the big screen in the form of "Richard Jewell," director Clint Eastwood's thirty-eighth time directing following last year's bad "The 15:17 to Paris" and the decent "The Mule" (in which he also starred). This time around he stays behind the camera and focuses the majority of his attention on the unlucky security guard (played here quite well by Paul Walter Hauser, until now probably best known for playing the bodyguard in "I, Tonya").

After some early prologue scenes that establish the protagonist as an overzealous cop wannabe as well as his loose connection to a lawyer (Sam Rockwell) who will eventually end up defending him against the Feds, the story -- penned by Billy Ray -- jumps ahead a decade to 1996 and shows Jewell as a 33-year-old who lives with his mom (an excellent Kathy Bates) and has recently been fired from his job.

But with the Olympics in town, he manages to land a job working security at Centennial Park, a pivotal location where a local newspaper reporter (Olivia Wilde) and FBI field agent (Jon Hamm) have also found themselves separately assigned. And then Jewell finds the bomb and helps clear people partly out of the way before it explodes.

Wilde's real-life Kathy Scruggs and Hamm's fictitious Tom Shaw immediately spring into action, with both wanting to find out who's responsible, albeit for different reasons. With a tip from a college dean who previously employed Jewell, Shaw quickly deduces that the security guard did the whole thing to get attention for himself as a hero.

And once Scruggs sleeps that name out of Shaw (something that's been contested recently by those who knew the now-deceased reporter), all hell breaks loose for the hero turned villain, with Rockwell's attorney stepping in to try to keep his unlikely client's head above the waters and feet (and other body parts) away from the gimme-gimme piranhas of the world.

Overall, I liked the film, but have some issues with various elements. For those desirous of watching a lawyer do his thing to prove his client's innocence, this version of such a tale comes up short. While I enjoyed watching Rockwell's exasperated responses to most everything he finds himself surrounded by (including Jewell's inability to follow simple directions), there's not much in the way of proactive motion.

At the same time, both Wilde and Hamm's characters are written and played so far over the top that they feel like caricatures rather than real people. I get Eastwood's mistrust of both the government and the media, but the structure and portrayal of both characters borders on cartoonish at times. And the reporter's sudden "oh no" reversal seems too sudden and unlikely considering the behavior we've witnessed up to that point.

Thankfully, despite all of that and a somewhat loosey-goosey directorial approach from the start, Eastwood manages to pull most of it together into a satisfying whole that gets better as it goes. Decent but not great, "Richard Jewell" proves that second impressions can sometimes be more powerful than the first if manipulated in just the right (but wrong) ways. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2019 / Posted December 13, 2019


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