Richard Jewell, the security guard who alerted police about a suspicious backpack that eventually exploded, saving the lives of countless people at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, only to then be accused of planting the bomb himself, will soon receive a plaque in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
“I’d like a street named after him,” Clint Eastwood said after the AFI Fest world premiere of his film “Richard Jewell.” “He deserves even more.”
With “Richard Jewell,” Eastwood has given the late security guard something bigger than a plaque or a namesake street. Eastwood has crafted a monument to Jewell’s heroism and a portrait of its shattering aftermath, an arc Eastwood calls a “great American tragedy.”
Eastwood began shooting “Richard Jewell” in late June and wrapped in August, enabling Warner Bros. to get it in theaters on Dec. 13. The film could do well commercially, though unlike “American Sniper” or “Sully” — other Eastwood films depicting the dark side of celebrated heroes — it doesn’t have a star. Comedic actor Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell (Jonah Hill was originally attached), and he makes the most of his first starring role, playing the title character as a kind of principled Paul Blart sad sack, an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing.
The late-arriving “Richard Jewell” faces a challenge to gain awards season traction, though the movie certainly won’t have a hard time generating publicity. Billy Ray’s screenplay, based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article and a new book on the case, hammers its theme of an unpretentious Southern man, a Baptist who loves guns, hunting and his mama (Kathy Bates), being unfairly targeted by “two of the most powerful forces in the world” — the United States government and an unscrupulous media.
The editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has already lashed out at the movie, defending the paper’s reporting on the case. That reporting came under fire at the time, though, with the American Journalism Review criticizing the Journal-Constitution for triggering a full-scale media frenzy with scanty sourcing.
“I find it appalling, quite frankly, at how quickly everybody leapt to finger this guy,” the late David Shaw, the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning media reporter, said in a 1996 interview. “To write about it in the context of a larger story about the explosion, down in the sixth or eighth paragraph —that’s one thing. But to bring out a special edition and start leading your newscast and putting out Page 1 stories on it — that’s over the top.”
But “Richard Jewell” is also over the top in some respects, particularly the way in which Olivia Wilde plays the Atlanta paper’s police reporter Kathy Scruggs. She’s written as an unethical journalist who sleeps with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) for information (or maybe because he looks like Jon Hamm … or maybe all of the above). She’s also callous, flippant, a boozer and only bothers to check the facts of her reporting weeks after the story runs.
Additionally, she seems to have the power of invisibility and the improbable ability to develop a conscience shortly after praying to God that the bomber be “[expletive] interesting.”
Wilde did not attend the Q&A Wednesday night.
Joining Eastwood at the invite-only screening, which was concurrent with a public unveiling at the Chinese Theater, were Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Bates and Hamm. Bates earned a standing ovation from the audience, made up mostly of Screen Actors Guild members. They rose for Eastwood too, though as the 89-year-old filmmaker noted: “I’m an old-timer. A senior citizen. They have to treat me well.”
Rockwell, funny and fierce as Jewell’s attorney, might be the movie’s best chance at awards season success, given his recent roll with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Vice.” Asked how he cast Rockwell, Eastwood replied that he thought he was great portraying George W. Bush in “Vice,” though he admitted he “didn’t see the whole movie.”
Eastwood tried to make “Richard Jewell” for four years before it came together this spring. “I wanted this picture in the worst way,” he said, wrapping up the evening. “I sold a lot of souls to the devil.”
We’ll know in a few weeks how that bargain turns out.