The good: Clint Eastwood makes the decision to keep the story focused almost exclusively on Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a simple and decent man unjustly accused of the Olympic Park bombing when, in fact, his vigilance saved lives. Eastwood makes us privy to Jewell’s desires (to be in law enforcement, to be respected, to be “the man”) and then dramatizes how those desires are perverted to indict him. Jewell is vilified by the press and the government as a wannabe hero, a fat, dumb rent-a-cop who naturally, would plant the bomb he “discovered” as a short-cut to his dreams of glory. As Jewell is maligned, he is physically encircled, unable even to walk his dog, work or see his friends, such is the suffocating press of the media and the FBI. And his loving relationship with his mother (Kathy Bates) is cast as yet another pathetic failure, a mama’s boy living at home in his 30s. Oh the fun Jay Leno had.
But Eastwood doesn’t give us a polemic or a martyr, just a character study of a man whose presumptions about what is right and wrong are peeled from him in the small apartment he shares with his mother, the place that eventually becomes their cage, and after the inevitable search warrant, a bare, claustrophobic and violated cage at that.
The performances are stellar. Hauser is so earnest, raw and authentic that I almost suspected Eastwood had cast a skilled non-actor, to better effect than in The 15:17 to Paris. Bates is everybody’s mother, and her torment as she endures the destruction of her baby boy is heart-rending. Sam Rockwell, as the outraged but seemingly in-over-his head local yokel attorney, stands in for the audience, shaking his head as his client is pilloried, even as the most sophisticated member of the trio.
The not-so-good: The villains are the FBI (represented here in the form of a composite FBI agent played by John Hamm) and the media (spearheaded by a tough talking, ambitious and unethical Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter played by Olivia Wilde). Hamm and his team jump to conclusions after failing to find other viable suspects, and in a case of confirmation bias, settle on Jewell as the bomber without a shred of physical or corroborating evidence. Wilde fucks Hamm to get the scoop and then outs Jewell, after which the rest of her profession piles on.
Eastwood unnecessarily stacks the deck. It’s not outrageous, like Sully’s portrayal of the NTSB, and the FBI and the press did act egregiously (if you have any doubt about that, read this). But their excesses do not require the filmic equivalent of blood dripping from their lips. I won’t go so far as to say that the Hamm character twirls his mustache, but he is so simplistically certain that it strains credulity. The Wilde character is even more cartoonish, and worse, her performance is outlandishly unconvincing.
There was some controversy over her portrayal, given that the film clearly shows Wilde trading sex for the information, which appears to be conjecture at best. Normally, I would not hold such an assumption against the film, but the movie is about defamation of character, so it should have been more scrupulous.
That said, if Eastwood had not included the sex-for-scoop scene, we would have been denied Wilde’s cringy watusi (boiled down, she declares it is sexist to criticize her character for giving up her body to Hamm when no one is criticizing the Hamm character for taking it and anyways, script be damned, the characters had a pre-existing sexual relationship!) Wilde’s post-film performance is a hell of a lot better than the one she gave in the film.
This is a good, flawed picture.