Paul Walter Hauser, playing the title character in Richard Jewell, holds back the crowds during an Olympics celebration gone wrong. Photos from Warner Bros. Pictures.
Suspicious Minds the
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2020 - 12:00am

When does a hero become a suspect?

When he ticks all the right boxes.

In Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser plays an Atlanta-based security guard tasked to watch over an Olympics public event in 1996. That’s the one where a pipe bomb went off in a crowded area, killing two and injuring hundreds.

Jewell, a chunky wannbe cop, fits the profile of a guy you probably wouldn’t trust around explosives. He keeps a small arsenal of rifles and handguns in his mom’s condo where he lives (“This is Georgia,” he tells his lawyer, Sam Rockwell, with a shrug. “I like to hunt”); he knows a bit more about the force and trajectory of nail bombs than the average person should; he fixates on celebrity criminal cases, like the OJ trial; and most of his life, he’s wanted to be in law enforcement, though guarding Centennial Park for AT&T is about as close as he got.

That is, until the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta that shocked the world.

Shady: FBI agents Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez give Richard Jewell the third degree.

Sometime during the three-day-long celebration — with acts like Kenny Rogers entertaining crowds at Centennial Park — someone left a knapsack containing several pipe bombs lying under a bench. Jewell, typically overzealous about spotting possible security threats, alerted police who reluctantly called in a bomb squad. Jewell and others helped to push back the crowds from the deadly “package,” but before anyone could defuse the bomb, the knapsack exploded, killing two people and injuring over a hundred.

The nobody was suddenly hailed as a hero for spotting the suspicious package, interviewed by Katie Curic and offered a book deal — until the FBI let it be known that he was also a suspect.

Jewell doesn’t help himself much. “I’m law enforcement, like you,” he keeps telling FBI agents, as though they’re on the same team. Unfortunately, law enforcement seems to be increasingly focused on him.

Richard Jewell, like many of Eastwood’s films, examines what it means to be an American citizen, and casts a suspicious eye on government. As a poster in the office of Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) puts it, “I FEAR THE GOVERNMENT MORE THAN I FEAR TERRORISM.” Since these events all took place before 9/11, you can see that healthy skepticism about government motives is pretty much now wired into the American DNA. Imgesting conspiracy theories is now as American as eating your Wheaties.

Sam Rockwell looks on as Jewell comforts his mom (Kathy Bates)

Hauser, who has a gift for playing hefty regular guys with an unusual interest in security, law enforcement and munitions (see: I, Tonya, where he plays wannabe security expert Jeff Gillooly, or the gun-crazy redneck Klansman he nails in BlacKkKlansman), is a standout here. With his shifty, queasy gaze and tendency to be too “solicitous” to cops, it’s no wonder that FBI guy Jon Hamm — already in the hot seat for letting the blast take place on his watch of Centennial Park — begins to fit Jewell squarely into the profile of a suspect. It’s good for his career if he wraps up the case quickly.

Cue ambitious and wily news reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who wheedles some hush-hush FBI tidbits out of clueless Hamm and then goes public. Next thing you know, Richard Jewell goes from man of the hour to fake “Hero bomber.” The media descends on his mom’s condo (Kathy Bates in one of her best roles in ages) and Jewell’s lawyer coaches him to be a bit more careful about offering up information. In other words, keep his mouth shut around the FBI. In one key scene, when his lawyer is out of the room, Hamm and his FBI partner try to get Jewell to recite the same words a bomb tipster phoned in to police right before the blast (“There’s a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes to evacuate”), and use the tape recording as evidence.

The FBI, already under scrutiny for its investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, gets a few new black eyes from Eastwood’s portrayal here. Here, they raid Mrs. Jewell’s kitchen and bedroom, confiscating her Tupperware and pantyhose for any trace of explosives. It’s a typical David and Goliath setup, with the government playing the stomping giant. As Eastwood tells the press, “I was interested in Richard Jewell’s story because he was the common man, the average person. He was never prosecuted, but he was in every way persecuted. There was this rush to judgment to accuse him, and he didn’t have any power to escape it and was, for a long time, too naively idealistic to see he needed to save himself.”

Eastwood says he wanted to restore the “honor” of this “everyday guy.”

But then again, there are all those other boxes he ticks. Sure, he loves firearms and knows a lot about bombs. But he also declined to pay his taxes for several years. And the movie makes clear he was arrested on several occasions and fired by a college for harassing students who broke campus rules. He was not exactly a saint. More like a walking human rights violation.

Still, Richard Jewell is a hero’s story. It benefits from strong supporting acting, and Hauser does his best work yet. Eastwood’s main targets here, as in past films, is the shadowy hand of government, and the corrupt nature of the media (for me, the press is more of a blind, self-feeding organism).

As ever, he champions an American underdog — the movie shows that even imperfect people can be heroes — but in our time and place in history, even underdogs can sometimes use a few rabies shots.

* * *

Richard Jewell opens this Wednesday, released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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