Richard Jewell
Working Class Hero

2019 AFI Fest Gala Screening

Directed by Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Billy Ray, Richard Jewell (2019) is based on the true story of the security guard who went from hero to suspect. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Jewell was working as an AT&T security guard in Olympic Centennial Park. He discovered a backpack containing pipe bombs, immediately alerted law enforcement and helped evacuate concert goers shortly before the bombs went off.

Paul Walter Hauser (I Tonya [2017], BlacKkKlansman [2018]) resembles the real Jewell and gives an uncanny performance as the polite and ultimately good-hearted wannabe G-Man who lives with his mother (Kathy Bates). Recreating the Centennial Park concert, Eastwood ramps up the tension in scenes that show Alfred Hitchcock’s ticking time bomb in action. Hitchcock used the ticking bomb to explain the difference between surprise and suspense. In Richard Jewell, the audience knows or at least suspects what’s about to happen. In the movie as in real life, Richard’s quick thinking and bravery doesn’t go unnoticed, the media picks up on it and he becomes an instant hero.

Richard has had a checkered employment history and some run-ins with the law. The head of a college he did security work for goes to the FBI with his suspicions. Reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is one of the two main villains of the film. She’s looking for a scoop and finds it when loose-lipped FBI special agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) lets slip, after breathy cooing and coaxing from Kathy, that Jewell is the target of the bombing investigation. While Tom Shaw is a composite, there was a real Kathy Scruggs, since deceased, who her news media colleagues feel is unfairly maligned. Her former employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a pending lawsuit against the movie. [Violet Kim in Slate explains “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Richard Jewell” available here.]

Law enforcement and the media both rush to judgment. Seemingly, the only thing standing between Richard and the electric chair is his old buddy and new lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and Watson’s long-suffering assistant Nadya, played by the terrific Nina Arianda. As she told Variety, the acclaimed stage actress met the real Nadya and studied the vocal mannerisms and movement of the former dancer. The closeness between Bryant and Nadya is at the heart of movie.

(L-r) NINA ARIANDA as Nadya Light and SAM ROCKWELL as Watson Bryant in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “RICHARD JEWELL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

Cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who also shot Eastwood’s The Mule (2018) and John Crowley’s elegant period piece Brooklyn (2015), uses low light in the interior scenes that creates an intimacy between the characters and emphasizes that darkness that’s descending on them. As mentioned earlier, the opening scenes of the bombing (replayed in flashbacks) and what leads up to it are effective in building tension. Joel Cox’s editing is also notable. As Peter Debruge points out in the November 20, 2019 Variety: “In one scene, intercut with footage of Michael Johnson breaking the 200-meter speed record at the 1996 Olympics, Eastwood shows Bryant timing the walk between the bomb site and the pay phone where an anonymous 911 call was placed — a fancy bit of filmmaking meant to underscore Jewell’s innocence.”