What on Earth has happened to Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker this decade? The iconic Western gunslinger turned director has spent his most recent years helming features like American Sniper, The 15:17 to Paris and Sully that are just tedious rehashes of real-world events with nary an interesting perspective or trace of memorable filmmaking to be found. Little in the way of thoughtful exploration of the perspective of human beings caught up in the grand sweep of history can be found, his recent movies have been too bland for that. Even his foray into musical cinema with Jersey Boys used the same shadow-heavy cinematography and lack of thoughtful character work that have plagued Eastwood’s recent efforts.
The newest evidence for how much Eastwood is struggling as a filmmaker as of late is found in Richard Jewell, which tells the true story of the titular man (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a security officer who wishes to be a part of law enforcement forces. While working security for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Richard Jewell inadvertently stumbles upon a backpack containing a bomb. The explosive goes off but Jewell’s efforts manage to minimize the number of casualties. Jewell regarded as a hero…for a brief moment. When word leaks that the FBI is looking at him as a possible suspect, Jewell becomes a pariah. Enlisting the help of lawyer friend Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Jewell will have to face off against local newspapers and the FBI if he wants to clear his name.
Richard Jewell commits the ultimate sin any movie can commit…it’s boring as heck. I normally don’t like to use such a reductive descriptor in film criticism but the filmmaking in Richard Jewell is just so lazily assembled that it deserves being called out for what it is. There’s so little urgent drama in scenes dedicated to Jewell’s life spinning out of control or discernable humanity in its intimate moments. It’s all such a surface-level project afraid to actually get inside the heads of its characters or treat them as anything more than caricatures. That’s an especially disappointing quality in a screenplay penned by Billy Ray, a guy who did manage to make fleshed-out characters and thoroughly compelling drama in his writing for fellow real-world drama Captain Phillips.
Ray’s writing in Richard Jewell, by contrast, is a slog and Eastwood’s stagnant direction only compounds the tedium of the production. There isn’t a single environment in Richard Jewell that Eastwood and cinematographer Yves Belanger won’t drape in grays and blacks, every interior location seems to be desperately in need of a lightbulb change. Equally low levels of imagination are found in the lackluster camerawork, even an intense sequence like Jewell trying to evacuate people before the bomb goes off is told through such lifeless camerawork. This pivotal scene doesn’t communicate imminent danger since it isn’t shot any differently from Jewell casually talking to his mother, Barb (Kathy Bates), in his bedroom.
All of the lack of effort on the part of the writing and directing leaves a talented group of actors stranded without much to do. Sam Rockwell especially looks lost portraying Jewell’s grim lawyers, it’s a part that never affords Rockwell the chance to flex his many gifts as a performer. I spent my time watching Rockwell on-screen wishing he would go back to doing unorthodox comedies and indie movies instead of showing up in miscast roles in high-profile award season fare. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde has the most lively performance in the project playing a fictionalized version of a real-life reporter. However, that liveliness comes from her acting being pitched in the same ballpark as the villain in a direct-to-video Air Bud sequel, she’s so over-the-top and out-of-place in an otherwise grim drama.
Sometimes that leads to unintentional amusement, like when she reveals that she’s been in the backseat of Watson Bryant’s car, but most of the time her performance is just heavily miscalculated. As for Paul Walter Hauser, he’s the best part of Richard Jewell, his raw and unpolished depiction of the social awkwardness of Jewell especially comes off as the most authentically human part of a movie that’s otherwise detached from human qualities. However, his solid lead turn gets constantly undercut by both Billy Ray’s script and Clint Eastwood’s direction. That former element especially hinders Hauser since he’s repeatedly handed some of the most ham-fisted dialogue in the entire project. Even Hauser cannot make Ray’s clumsy attempts at “Aw shucks!’ comedic dialogue or inspirational lines bearable.
Watching Hauser trying to deliver his performance in the context of this movie is like watching a skilled tap-dancer having to perform barefoot on a floor covered in LEGO’s. Even while working around those insurmountable problems, Hauser’s performance does have standout qualities. Chief among those qualities is a number of his line deliveries that reflect the dark comedic absurdity of the entire Richard Jewell scenario. These line deliveries hint at a far better version of this movie, one that could have at least had the decency to have some personality or a distinct aesthetic to its name. Alas, Richard Jewell is a modern-day Clint Eastwood movie and we have no time for such qualities here. All you’ll find in the version of Richard Jewell we do have is monotonous & empty filmmaking that underserves both the true story of Richard Jewell and a talented group of actors.