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Hero under fire 

Fitting in easily among director Clint Eastwood's recent filmic tributes to everyday American heroes, the simplistic but compelling character study "Richard Jewell" tells the story of how the twin forces of media and the government came together to destroy the life of a hapless Atlanta security guard.

Working security in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Jewell (played by a fantastic Paul Walter Hauser) was the first to spot a suspicious backpack left unattended. Despite initial resistance from his colleagues, who thought he was overreacting, he alerted authorities and helped to clear the area before the backpack (which turned out to contain a rather large pipe bomb) detonated, killing one person and injuring 111 others.

click to enlarge Paul Walter Hauser in "Richard Jewell." - PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS
  • PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS
  • Paul Walter Hauser in "Richard Jewell."

Jewell's swift instincts saved innumerable lives, and he was rightly hailed as a hero. For a while. Then the media caught wind that the FBI was looking into the possibility Jewell had planted the bomb himself. Though Jewell was ultimately exonerated, it wasn't before outlets around the country ran with the story, dragging his entire life through the mud, and making him an early victim of the 24-hour news cycle.

Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray adapt Marie Brenner's 1997 Vanity Fair article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell," and it's not hard to see why the 89-year old director was attracted to this story: Eastwood has long been preoccupied with tales of interest in virtue and heroism. As a director, his films often revolve around beleaguered men trying to do the right thing under threat from forces much larger than themselves.

Jewell is an amiable, slightly odd loner who's blessed with an impressive memory and an eye for small, crucial details, but his habit of overstepping bounds in the name of "law and order" has gotten him into trouble in the past. He was fired from a gig working campus security when he was reported using excessive force on students, and claiming more authority than the job entailed.

Still living with his devoted mother (Kathy Bates), Jewell's a well-meaning schlub with ambitions toward law enforcement. He has a deference to authority, and is unable to stop trying to ingratiate himself to investigators, even when their efforts are aimed at proving him a murderer.

Jewell is painted by the media as a wannabe cop hungry for the glory that had eluded him professionally.

Luckily he has a voice of reason in the form of his unconventional, short-tempered lawyer G. Watson Bryant (a typically charismatic Sam Rockwell), who gives him guidance when the story becomes a media frenzy, and the country's rush to judgement becomes a dogpile.

As a film, "Richard Jewell" is bound to be divisive, with elements that seem designed specifically to get a rise out of viewers on either side of the political divide, from the film's general mistrust of the media and the government, to occasionally problematic treatment of female characters, to say nothing of the prominent placement of a few Confederate flags.

It's a great story though, and a timely one in the era of "fake news" and when widespread distrust of the media continues to proliferate. But Eastwood undercuts whatever message he's trying to get across by reducing the narrative's antagonistic forces to simplistic avatars. The worst offender is the portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) the Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist who first revealed that Jewell had become the prime suspect in the case. Scruggs (who's no longer alive to defend herself) is portrayed as a fame-hungry floozy, a bad journalist who'll sleep with sources in exchange for information.

She's simply out to find the juiciest story she can get her hands on, never letting little things like facts get in the way of the narrative she wants to tell. It feels as though Wilde is aware she hasn't been given the lion's share of character development to work with, so she leans into it, acting as though she's in a broad satire. It's not a bad performance exactly, just one that seems beamed in from a completely different movie than everyone else.

The incident at Centennial Park occurred just a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, giving the FBI's leader of the investigation, Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) all the more motivation to bring this bombing's perpetrators swiftly to justice. We see how he's willing to skirt the Constitution to get there. Attempting to get his suspect to waive his rights, he brings Jewell in for interrogation by convincing him they're creating a training video.

When Eastwood keeps his sentimental streak in check, his unadorned style is effective. And it's bolstered by the strongest ensemble of actors the director has worked with in a long while, from Rockwell to Bates, Hamm, and professional scene-stealer Nina Arianda ("Florence Foster Jenkins," and "Stan & Ollie") as Bryant's assistant and future wife, Nadya.

But Hauser is the real standout. The actor's been impressive before, giving memorably humorous performances as bumbling, dim bulb thugs in "I, Tonya" and "BlackKklansman." Here he's given an opportunity to show more range, projecting a sweetness and fumbling decency against a climate of cynicism, mistrust, fear, and anger. He gives this broad cautionary tale some much-needed heart.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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