Clint Eastwood has been directing movies for nearly 50 years. Given that experience and his age (nearly 90), it's a little bit surprising he's been so fixated lately on recent American history. He's been focusing on historically-rooted stories for a while, covering World War II (Flags of Our Fathers; Letters from Iwo Jima) and the postwar period (J. Edgar; Jersey Boys), as well as the second war in Iraq (American Sniper). But over the past five years, Eastwood has been dramatizing a series of smaller contemporary events, usually predicated on the actions of seemingly regular men thrust into unusual circumstances and performing heroic acts.
Sully recreated the famous Hudson River plane crash saved from disaster by its graceful pilot; The 15:17 to Paris recreated a terrorist attack halted by three vacationing military guys; and now Richard Jewell recreates the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, following the man who discovered the bomb and was later accused of planting it. All three films sit at a strange, compelling intersection between Eastwood's straightforward style, his libertarian politics, the moral ambiguity of his best movies, and a lack of conventional drama that represents some of his most experimental work.
"Experimental" is not necessarily the word that comes to mind when describing Eastwood's no-fuss, efficient filmmaking. But casting the real-life heroes of The 15:17 to Paris in their own fiction-film story qualifies as an experimental gambit. Sully used Tom Hanks, possibly America's most trusted actor, but that film took risks with the plot instead of the cast. Rather than focus on the eponymous pilot's humble origins, Eastwood opens with the day of the crash, then dramatizes the aftermath and its impact on Chesley Sullenberger's psyche.
Compared to Sully and 15:17, Richard Jewell is a distant period piece; it uses a crowd dancing to "The Macarena" to situate itself firmly in 1996. But it follows a similar pattern, exploring a life-threatening incident in relative isolation.
Once again, casting is key. Jewell, a low-level security guy who had lingered on the fringe of law enforcement for much of his career, is played by character actor Paul Walter Hauser (best known as a dimwitted I, Tonya henchman, he gets an "end" credit in his first starring role), surrounded by bigger stars: Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Jon Hamm. The movie follows Jewell from a mail-room job where he meets lawyer Watson Bryant (Rockwell) to an ill-fated campus security job to his Olympics gig, where his discovery of a bomb, like the heroic actions in Sully and 15:17, saves many lives. But the FBI, lacking for suspects, decides that Jewell fits their profile and investigates him; an agent (Hamm) leaks this information to an ambitious, frustrated local journalist (Wilde). (This scene has sparked quite a bit of controversy because it uses the misoygynistic trope of a female reporter who'll do anything for a scoop.)
As with Eastwood's other recent-history chronicles, there isn't much of a traditional story here. Jewell rose to the occasion, went through hell as a suspect, and his name was cleared (first he's dismissed as a suspect when the FBI has to admit it has no evidence; further down the line, someone else confesses to the bombing). Years later, in an event left for the movie's epilogue text, he died of heart failure. The challenge of the film is to expand a potential historical footnote into a full chapter, without adhering strictly to the biopic formula. As with Sully and 15:17, the bigness of the event, the intimacy of the characters, and the vastness of history are constantly, sometimes fascinatingly at odds.
At his best, Eastwood fills in the story's details with endearing directness. The sometimes-testy friendship between Jewell and Bryant demonstrates his ease with sentimentally unsentimental male bonding (something he also captured, in a clumsier way, in 15:17). The cast is uniformly strong, but Hauser is particularly good as a guy who wants to help so badly that he often seems to be creating trouble by lurking around, actively looking for it. Eastwood seems content to downplay Jewell's history of overzealous policing; in a scene where he's fired from his campus-security position, the head of the college is dressed and directed for maximum tweediness, and Jewell's firing from another law-enforcement job is referred to only in passing. But Hauser manages to make Jewell's misplaced intensity weirdly touching. When Jewell is being investigated, it's hard for him to grasp the idea that he shouldn't trust fellow officers of the law.
Though Eastwood is the type of filmmaker to discourage political readings of his work, there are common political threads here, namely his distrust of authority, whether it's the NTSB investigating Sully, the FBI hounding Jewell, or the journalists who swarm around Jewell's home once his person-of-interest status is revealed. The Richard Jewell screenplay offers seemingly unsubstantiated conjecture about the conduct of the now-deceased journalist played by Wilde, depicted as seducing Hamm's FBI agent for a scoop. It can be read as either an oblivious throwback to era-appropriate media-blaming or a chillingly MAGA-ready condemnation of the press. Here the Eastwood ambivalence comes into play: Wilde's character feels remorse, but also disappears from the movie.
Ironically, given his media skepticism, Eastwood's recent films sometimes appear to embrace the rough-draft-of-history dictum that's been applied to journalism. It's easy to imagine all three of these stories as '90s-style quickie TV movies, and despite his old-pro bona fides, that's sometimes how Eastwood directs them, letting all three sort of trail off at the end. There's something both contradictory and admirable about the way Eastwood dashes off these versions of real events, making them quick but not exactly conclusive, with none of the social-media certainty of a declarative tweet. At 90, he's still trying to make sense of the world around him.
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