Richard Jewell: Paul Walter Hauser, the Jewell in Clint Eastwood's crown.
Were cash and prizes all that motivated Clint Eastwood, he’d have had himself de-aged, made another Dirty Harry sequel for Netflix, and been done with it. But there’ll be none of that small screen hoo-hah for this picture-maker. Some films (a few) are admittedly better than others, but has there been a time since the Man With No Name first rode into town when Eastwood wasn’t at the top of his game? Don’t believe me? Check out Richard Jewell.
The Gauntlet’s Ben Shockley will forever be my pet Eastwood personification. Released on the heels of the second sequel to Dirty Harry, it marked a major turning point in Eastwood’s career, both in front of and behind the camera. It was a time when the two biggest action stars in town were Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Eastwood could have just as easily have settled into an endless cycle of easy, breezy Harry Calahan outings, similar to what Bronson was doing with Paul Kimball, née Kersey in Death Wish 1-46. God had other plans. Bronson was a popcorn salesman. Eastwood is an artist.
It was my first awareness of Eastwood’s experimental side. Shockley arrives late for work, opens the driver’s door, and before the detective’s shoe can touch the pavement, an empty pint of booze shatters to the ground, beating him to it. Instead of macho swagger, Shockley is Harry Callan in reverse, an off-the-ropes and out-of-control rummy, being played for a patsy by his bullying superiors. There’s a lot of Shockley in Richard Jewell. Jewell’s drug of choice is food, not alcohol. His is a life of overcompensation, always looking for some way to counteract his doughy deportment and faltering speech pattern. But the two share at least one similarity on the positive side of the ledger: one can count on both men to get the job done. (The one thing Shockley has over Jewell is an actual shield, as opposed to a rent-a-cop badge.)
Eastwood worked five years putting the film together, and there’s not another actor out there who’d make a better Richard Jewell than Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya; BlacKkKlansman). Their similarity is uncanny, but it’s much more than that: Jewell is not a celebrity along the lines of, say, Ray Charles or Mr. Rogers. So unlike most celebrity biopics, this isn’t a matter of makeup and mimicry, where an actor is afforded the luxury of poring over hours of footage before hitting their mark. His scenes opposite Kathy Bates as his mother are so realistic, they play like hidden-camera footage. Nor is there any obvious greatness to latch onto. Hauser’s Jewell can be an arrogant son of a bitch, looking to get even for years of people poking fun. Sure enough, no sooner does he try to shoo a band of teenagers away from the suspicious-looking package containing three pipe bombs than his size is called into question. A little power can go a long way, and one doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of Jewell’s retribution. Conversely, Jewell chose Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to be his lawyer precisely because he didn’t make fun of him.
The rumpus that’s greeted the picture’s release was almost as controversial as Jewell’s tabloid-wadding “trial by media.” Olivia Wilde co-stars as Kathy Scruggs, the real-life Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter who reported that Jewell was the FBI’s top suspect in the bombing of the 1996 Olympics. According to the script, Sruggs offered to exchange sex with fictionalized cop Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in return for the scoop. Show me a biopic that in some way or another doesn’t play fast and loose with the truth. Unlike Bombshell, in which a character is expressly created for belle du jour Margot Robbie to add more sizzle to a film purportedly aimed at broadsiding sexism, Scruggs and the AJC are the real villains in this piece. Whether or not Scruggs propositioned Shaw is second only to the fact that were it not for their rush to judgement, Jewell would have lived out the remainder of his life in a manner befitting a hero. (He died in 2007 at age 44.) Eastwood’s only misstep was not assigning Scruggs a pseudonym.
‘Twas partisan politics that killed a potentially beastly box office. The film raked in a mere $1 million for every star I’m giving it. (That’s five!) It’s one of the worst opening weekends in Eastwood’s career. Did people stay home fearing a lecture on fake news from a crabby old Republican prone to speaking to unoccupied chairs? Give the man some credit. With 38 movies to his name, director Eastwood’s a much sharper smuggler than that. Set aside a couple of hours this holiday season to spend with a pair of real-life American heroes: Clint Eastwood and Richard Jewell. It’s not often I say this, but you’ll thank me.