Set against the backdrop of the Summer Olympics, there are no winners among the characters in Richard Jewell, which shows that sometimes the worst thing to be is a hero.
This biopic from director Clint Eastwood is only moderately insightful for those who recall the headlines surrounding the explosion during the 1996 Games in Atlanta, but as a portrait of a true-life scapegoat, it’s persuasive and appropriately infuriating.
Richard (Paul Walter Hauser) is a fledgling security guard assigned to work a concert at Centennial Olympic Park, where he discovers a backpack containing a bomb. Despite his valiant effort to clear the area, he’s later implicated as a suspect thanks to some shady tactics by an FBI terrorism expert (Jon Hamm) who later spills the information to a brazen newspaper reporter (Olivia Wilde).
Richard is the type of anonymous loner who could easily disappear into the background, which turns out to be exactly the point. He’s innocent, of course, yet his relentless affability and social awkwardness worsen the situation. “I want to help. I’m law enforcement, too,” he keeps repeating during interrogations.
That exasperates his inexperienced lawyer (Sam Rockwell), who tries to quell the sensationalistic media onslaught. By the time Richard and his beleaguered mother (Kathy Bates) realize they are being duped, their effort to clear his name might be too late.
Eastwood conducts a mostly straightforward chronicle of events that captures its time and place. The film is all too eager to remind us that 1996 was the year of the Macarena, for example. Yet it also vividly illustrates the chaos surrounding the blast and its immediate aftermath.
Hauser (I, Tonya) brings depth and complexity to his portrayal of Richard, who is not an easy character to embrace. His overzealous nature is somewhat creepy, and his passivity toward being bullied is frustrating.
However, the savvy screenplay by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) doesn’t position him as an easy victim. While too easily filling in some of the speculative gaps, the film positions Richard as a pitiful figure, exploited by investigators eager to peddle a perpetrator to satiate public paranoia and avoid high-profile embarrassment. Their nonchalant villainy isn’t so much negligent police work as it is willful corruption and a coordinated smear campaign.
Richard Jewell is consistently compelling, even during its routine procedural stretches, and carries an unsettling emotional resonance. As Richard’s trust of authority erodes, so might yours.