From Spotlight to The Post, we’ve been getting a lot of movies lately that celebrate the press. Indeed, freedom of the press is important and has improved society for the better in many instances. Yet, it’s also fascinating to observe how the media can misuse the power it’s been granted. Along with Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass, Richard Jewel is among the best modern movies about the dark side of journalism. It’s a film that reminds us how easily an accusation or theory can be twisted into the truth, at least in the public’s eye. All it takes is one news story.
In case you weren’t watching the news in 1996, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was the security guard who spotted a bomb at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. While the bomb went off regardless, Jewell’s actions saved untold lives that night. At first, Jewell is appropriately hailed as a hero, making an appearance on The Today Show and even getting book deal offers. Jewell’s fifteen minutes of fame quickly turn to fifteen minutes of shame, though, when the FBI suspects that he planted the bomb. A hotshot reporter (Olivia Wilde) catches wind of the story from the FBI agent leading the investigation (Jon Hamm) and writes up a piece vilifying Jewell. To her credit, Wilde’s character, the late Kathy Scruggs, believes that she’s bringing down a guilty man. By the time she realizes the holes in her story, however, Jewell has already been sent through the wringer.
Kathy Bates is extremely effective as Jewell’s dedicated mother. Sam Rockwell strikes just the right balance of being sloppy yet determined as Jewell’s lawyer. Yet, the movie belongs to Hauser, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the title is Richard Jewell. Considering that Hauser is pushed into the “and” section of the credits, though, one may be led to believe that Jewell is a supporting player in his own biopic. While Rockwell at times can feel like the co-lead, there’s little doubt that this is Jewell’s story and Hauser’s acting showcase.
To a certain degree, Hauser is an unlikely choice to lead a high-profile film. Up until this point, Hauser has mainly been typecast as the bumbling comedic relief with his most prominent role being Shawn Eckhardt in I, Tonya. With another director behind the camera or more studio intervention, we may’ve gotten Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen in the role. Maybe Jared Leto would even put on the weight like he did for Chapter 27. Director Clint Eastwood has never been afraid to roll the dice on a lesser known actor, however. Sometimes this can backfire, like when he had real-life people portray themselves in The 15:17 to Paris. With Hauser, though, Eastwood not only found an actor who looks like Jewell, but can replicate his voice, speech patterns, and body language to a T. The fact that we haven’t seen much of Hauser in the past makes his performance all the more authentic.
Sitting down to watch this movie, a friend brought up an interesting point. If you asked a person who Richard Jewell is, there’s a good chance they’ll know who you’re talking about. If you asked who was responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, chances are they’d have no idea. Innocent or guilty, Jewell never quite escaped the bad press and this movie is an eerie reminder why. Its message is especially relevant in an era where most people get their news from social media. If an established newspaper can get such a major story wrong, should we really accept whatever we read on our Facebook feed as fact?