There are times when we are so hellbent on justice that we do an injustice instead. Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood's latest film about a wrongly accused outsider who learns valuable lessons along the way, is one of a long line of movies about the subversion of right and wrong.
Eastwood has a personal relationship with these men (never women in his films) who must fight a system rigged against them. From his own portrayals both in spaghetti Westerns and even as "Dirty" Harry Callahan, his characters are loners who have a showdown with conventional society.
The films he directs are similarly themed. In Sully, Tom Hanks' airline pilot turns from hero to goat due to a society looking for blame (a theme repeated in Richard Jewell). In American Sniper, the military hero ends up addled, addicted and violent due to what his government has forced upon him. The old man in Gran Torino is a loner in a society that does not value age.
Richard Jewell is one of the best of this oeuvre. The character, a bit of a cliched good old boy from Georgia, is seen as a hero for discovering the backpack holding a pipe bomb that soon detonates in downtown Atlanta during an Olympics celebration.
Eastwood paints Jewell, played with honesty and pathos by newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, as an everyman who may be a bit extreme in his love of law and order and policework. But he is every bit an outsider, a portly Southern cracker who has been fired from security jobs by being a bit too gung-ho, even making traffic stops as a college guard after he is told that is not his role.
The aftermath of the bombing at first makes Jewell a down-home, genial celebrity, with media outlets and book deals calling his name. But after a FBI agent played with earnest menace by Jon Hamm suspects that Jewell might have been involved in the bombing, it all spirals downhill. An annoying, super-aggressive reporter played by Olivia Wilde publishes the fact that Jewell is under investigation by the federal bureau, leading to a media frenzy that turns Jewell's home into the Roman Coliseum, with reporters perched outside and screaming for a story 24-7. More on the media in a minute.
The movie could go off the tracks at this point, becoming a screed on the invasion of privacy, a media prone to hyperventilate at any story, a government bent on closing a case rather than finding the perpetrator. But it doesn't. Credit Eastwood and Sam Rockwell, one of the best character actors in Hollywood, for keeping the movie grounded.
Rockwell plays Jewell's only friend, a lawyer who doesn't laugh at him but sees his warmth. He has to fight for Jewell, who still sees the FBI as a colleague rather than his adversary, and counterpunch against Hamm's avarice and zealousness in getting Jewell to confess. He becomes the movie's moral center, its foundation. He convinces Jewell to fight for himself and not be cowed.
Eastwood keeps his camera in soft focus, creating some distance from the audience and helping us understand this a true story we are watching. He does closeups better than most directors and has a knack for helping us get inside a character. The dialogue is crisp, with no excess fat, and the movie offers many touches of humanity, such as Jewell's desire to buy Snickers bars for a candy-craving Rockwell.
The characters smooth over some troubling signs. Eastwood paints the media as a rabid wolfpack. Wilde's reporter, in a scene often discussed, wishes to sleep with Hamm's FBI agent to get a story. She can't even write, telling a colleague that a brick could write a better story. The media is rabid, unrelenting, uncaring.
And the government is equally scary. In a scene early in the movie, Hamm tries to coerce Hauser to come in for questioning, using a guise that Hauser is helping him with a training video. His ethics are of the alley cat variety.
Yet, I don't think the movie is a conservative think piece, as some would argue. While distrust of media and big government are on the table, Richard Jewell is much more than that. It is a riveting study of an outsider railroaded by false justice. It is Eastwood's specialty.