Richard Jewell review – a real human being, if not a real hero

Clint Eastwood’s latest deconstruction of heroism finds the perfect cinematic approach to adapting true stories

“We’re going for authenticity here,” explains FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) to dubious security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), who has been instructed to sign a form “for real” as another agent points a camera in his direction. Jewell is being led to believe that the FBI want his help in devising a training video for officers who, like him, may one day notice a suspicious bag in a public place and have to take action. Eastwood lets the awkward scene play in real time as Jewell gradually realises that he’s actually being interrogated as a suspect in the very terrorist attack he helped prevent: the form is not just a piece of paper, but an official document that will allow the FBI to use this video testimony against him. Jewell eventually refuses to sign, stops answering questions, and calls his lawyer.

With Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood once again tells the ironic story of a man that society first deemed a hero, then accused of the crime he saved them from. Jewell was working as a low-level security guard when he helped the police contain a terrorist attack during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia after he discovered an abandoned bag and insisted on establishing a security perimeter around it; three days later, however, the media and the police turned against him.

Compared to Sully or The 15:17 to Paris, the director’s previous hero tales based on true events, Richard Jewell sees Eastwood’s filmmaking and the specific subject matter come together more harmoniously than ever. The disguised interrogation scene showcases Eastwood’s understanding of what is at stake when a man sees himself being reduced to either a hero or a villain: the matter of authenticity – of true humanity – is under threat. Eastwood therefore emphasises realism: none of the uncomfortable pauses or hesitations are cut out in order to make the scene more palatable to audiences. The actors’ performances, too, are unusually naturalistic for Hollywood cinema today. Eastwood allows Jewell to appear as his true, complex, contradictory self – the better to reveal the FBI’s dangerous close-mindedness.

This slice-of-life style is what makes Richard Jewell more emotionally resonant than Sully, where the titular character didn’t possess the same degree of ordinariness: while Sullenberger was a likeable plane pilot portrayed by Classic Everyman but Huge Star Tom Hanks, Jewell is an awkward and overweight failed policeman turned security guard, as interpreted by the relatively unknown yet excellent actor Paul Walter Hauser. The veneer of Hollywood filmmaking is reduced to a minimum to better let the story’s humane complexity shine. Eastwood had already tried to come closer to reality in The 15:17 to Paris by having the real-life heroes play themselves in the reenactment of their anti-terrorist adventure; the result, however, had been more fascinatingly strange than impactful. Richard Jewell strikes the right balance between the cinematic and the non-fictional, letting professional actors portray real people in all their captivating messiness. 

For Jewell is far from a typical heroic figure: his obsession with law enforcement and inability to join its ranks made him a perfect candidate for the “heroic bomber” profile, a man who would place explosives then alert the authorities to gain media recognition. Eastwood and Hauser must have worked in tight collaboration in order to let Jewell appear often shockingly naive and clumsy, without the film ever judging or mocking him.

Such a simultaneously endearing and frustrating man is the ideal protagonist for Eastwood’s mission to challenge not only the value of the term “hero,” but also the ways in which society and the media use this concept to dehumanise people. When a man becomes a hero, his authentic, flawed self is discredited and an idealised new identity forced upon him – a fabricated image that he can’t possibly live up to. Jewell couldn’t even pretend to be the calm, cool and collected ordinary citizen that Sully was; Eastwood gives him back his humanity by showing his flaws without apologising for them. Nothing is sugar-coated and there are no heroes or villains: even Agent Shaw’s misjudged accusation is shown for what it really is – the reaction of a man who felt guilty for failing to better protect his community. With Richard Jewell, Eastwood has perfected his cinematic approach to real stories to become one of the most humanistic, bold, and morally invigorating American filmmakers today.

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