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You know you're getting older when memorable tragedies like the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta occurred nearly 25 years ago. I remember being shocked that someone would want to disrupt a unifying event like the Olympic Games, and recalled the horrifying Oklahoma City bombing that occurred just over a year prior. I remember hearing the name Richard Jewell and understood that he went from hero to suspect in that bombing. I had not thought about that man for many years, until I saw the preview for Clint Eastwood's latest theatrical film, which adopts Jewell's name as its title. A solitary, underperforming loner who lived with his mother in an apartment outside Atlanta, Jewell was on duty as a security guard at the Olympic Games when he discovered a suspicious backpack that ultimately was found to contain several pipe bombs. Jewell's quick call to evacuate the area likely saved many lives, but suspicions were soon turned on him by the FBI, who considered Jewell a chief suspect and essentially ruined his life. Eastwood's dramatization of these events is not perfect, and contains several curious missteps, but the fine performances and gripping subject matter ultimately make for compelling viewing.
I was initially concerned this film would be overly political, given Eastwood's outspokenness during the Barack Obama administration. Fortunately, Eastwood seems to have calmed down politically, at least publicly, and Richard Jewell stays pretty center, even throwing in a couple of jokes about gun control and law and order. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) goes from a supply clerk at a law firm, where he meets attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), to become a sheriff's deputy, a job he quickly loses due to receiving complaints and failing to follow protocol. He winds up as a campus security guard but is fired from that job, too, for overreaching his job duties. In the summer of 1996, he is hired to work security at the Atlanta Olympics, and, during a July 27, 1996, concert, notices a backpack beneath a bench. That bag contains a bomb, and Jewell rouses local officers, the FBI and others to evacuate the park. The bomb detonates, killing two and injuring many, but the casualties were surely limited by Jewell's actions. Unfortunately, Jewell becomes a suspect when his background appears to fit the profile of a lone bomber: white male with failed aspirations to be in law enforcement or the military and who lives alone with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates). Jewell reaches out to Bryant after the FBI, led by Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), tries to trick him into signing away his Miranda rights during an interview, and Bryant stands by Jewell's side as his life is turned upside down.
It is important to note that Richard Jewell is definitely a story told from one side. Although Eric Rudolph ultimately confessed to the Atlanta bombing, some still believe Jewell had at least some part in the crime. The movie, most likely justly, comes down on Jewell's side, and portrays him as a good-natured, overly trusting man whose heroism nearly cost him his freedom. My first inclination upon leaving my initial theatrical viewing (remember those?) was that the FBI had ruined this poor man's life. It appears that other than his proximity to the scene and general personality, the FBI had very little evidence to suggest Jewell was the bomber. Among the clues the movie suggests they initially ignored was that Jewell could not have walked from the payphone where the bomber called 911 to the park in the time between that call and the bomb's detonation.
Among the film's more controversial choices is the portrayal of real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) as a ruthless opportunist looking to get on the front page by any means necessary, including sleeping with Agent Shaw for the scoop that the FBI is investigating Jewell. The late woman's family came out with a statement in her defense upon the movie's release, to which Eastwood basically responded that the portrayal matches what his research team unconverted. Whether that is true or not, Wilde is wasted in this unlikeable role, and, while the film gives her a halfhearted chance at redemption in the final act, she is simply on screen to be the villain that publishes the initial article about Jewell. The FBI is not given much behind-the-scenes exposure either, as Shaw is a composite character, but this feels appropriate as it shows the huge, steamrolling obstacles Jewell had to face during his inquisition.
Eastwood has had success depicting events in modern history, including in his American Sniper and J. Edgar, though I noted in my review of American Sniper that I typically like my patriotism subtle, which is not always Eastwood's way. He certainly stumbled trying to make the events surrounding the 2015 Thalys train attack into a feature-length film in the downright terrible 15:17 to Paris, but fortunately Richard Jewell offers enough drama and exploration of the events after the bombing to become a compelling watch. Hauser is fantastic in the lead role, fleshing out the man behind the character, giving Jewell genuine emotion and invoking empathy. Rockwell is also very good as the sarcastic, principle-driven Bryant, and Bates is quietly devastating as matriarch Bobi, who was given only a few days to be proud of her son before it was all ripped away. These are natural, unshowy performances that help buoy the material and get over the supporting character and narrative wrinkles. Richard Jewell tells an interesting story of a tragedy furthered by a poor investigation and witch hunt, and it becomes a compelling film thanks to strong performances and steady direction.
No physical 4K Ultra HD release is available thanks to the film's lousy performance at the box office, but this Blu-ray offers a good 2.39:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image that replicates the theatrical presentation. This digitally sourced image offers excellent fine-object detail and texture, particularly in costumes and close-quarters sets like the Jewell's apartment. Black levels are inky, and contrast is good. Skin tones are natural, and the color scheme only tilts toward green occasionally. Wide shots are deep and crisp, and I noticed no issues with aliasing or compression artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is surprisingly effective. From the opening scene, ambient noise surrounds the viewer and makes appropriate use of the surrounds. During the Centennial Park concerts, songs like "The Gambler" and "Macarena" are given a full work-up and sound very impressive amid the crowd noise and dialogue. The explosion absolutely rocks the sound field and LFE, and the resorting chaos allows for plenty of sound pans. All elements are balanced nicely, and I noticed no issues with crowding or distortion. French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs are included, as are English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subs.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in an eco-case that is wrapped in a flat slipcover. A digital copy code is included. As expected for an Eastwood film, the disc only contains two short bonus features: The Making of Richard Jewell (6:58/HD) and The Real Story of Richard Jewell (6:39/HD), each with commends from Eastwood, Bates, Wilde, Hauser, Hamm and others.
One of director Clint Eastwood's better recent films, Richard Jewell tells the compelling story of the man who went from hero to suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta. Excellent performances nearly erase a couple of narrative and supporting character missteps, and Richard Jewell becomes an entertaining, effective drama. Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.