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Clint Eastwood Mostly Returns To Form With “Richard Jewell”

The last decade and change has seen Clint Eastwood go from one of Hollywood’s most accomplished, awards friendly, and respected directors, to someone whose new work is very hit or miss. Mostly, the hits (American Sniper and Sully) have been outweighed by the misses (The 15:17 to Paris, Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, The Mule). Now, Eastwood is again following his Million Dollar Baby playbook (one that got him major Oscar love) and releasing a new movie at the tail end of the year. Opening this week is Richard Jewell, his latest effort. While hardly a misfire, it’s only a small scale success, periodically weighed down by the filmmaker’s politics. In other hands, this might have been irresistible. Instead, it’s a solid flick with a handful of problematic elements.

The film is a drama, pulled from the aftermath of the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. What begins as a character study soon turns dark. Initially, security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is able to save the lives of thousands from an exploding bomb during an Opening Ceremony at the Olympics, but that’s just the start of the story. Initially hailed as a hero, Richard soon is vilified by the press, and in particular one reporter by the name of Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who falsely report that he was a terrorist. Mixed with the conviction of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) that Richard is guilty, his life begins to fall apart. Already a portly loner, who really only has a few friends, he’s forced to recruit the only lawyer he knows in Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to defend him/his reputation. As Watson fights for Richard, the man’s mother (Kathy Bates) worries for his well being. History tells us what happens, but this puts the onus on journalists and federal agents for gaslighting the public. Eastwood directs a script by Billy Ray, with music by Arturo Sandoval and cinematography from Yves Bélanger. Longtime Eastwood collaborator Joel Cox edits. Supporting players are highlighted by Nina Arianda.

Two performances anchor this work. Paul Walter Hauser is a revelation, while Sam Rockwell contributes another top notch turn. They’re joined by a scene stealing Nina Arianda and a solid Kathy Bates, but Hauser and Rockwell leave the biggest impressions. The former is a perfect everyman, wound up to assume the best in people but used to receiving the worst, while the latter is a passionate crusader. They play off of each other quite well. Jon Ham is wasted, while Olivia Wilde is horribly led astray by a wholly problematic character. Plenty has been written about her role, but she’s better than this, wile Clint Eastwood and his scribe Billy Ray should have known better.

Richard Jewell probably would have benefitted from a different director at the helm. Too many of the film’s elements don’t get the benefit of the doubt because of Eastwood. Whether it’s fair to consider his right leaning politics is another question, but it’s hard not to notice anti government bumper stickers in shots, as well as the overt criticism of the media and federal law enforcement for wrongly looking to take down an individual. The latter element has its place, of course, but knowing Eastwood’s views on the world, as well as the real life situation we’re watching happen today, it’s hard not to draw parallels that don’t benefit the flick.

Today, those looking to take in one of the final Oscar contenders of the year will find a solid enough option in Richard Jewell. This is very much in Eastwood’s wheelhouse and he knows how to make it a mostly smooth ride. It’s just Wilde’s character and the politics on the margins that keep this one a bit at arm’s length. The Academy may well see this one as irresistible, but it’s frankly just a drama hoping to grab adult audiences. Taken on those terms, it’s more than acceptable. Put up against Academy Award hopefuls, however, makes for a whole other story…

Be sure to check out Richard Jewell, in theaters now!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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