‘Richard Jewell’ review: controversy surrounding biopic’s accuracy spoils thrilling crime drama

There is no real-life evidence that reporter Kathy Scruggs ever offered sex for information

Hollywood is littered with tales of stars who turned down major parts. Al Pacino would have made a fascinating Han Solo, and Forrest Gump would have been wild with John Travolta in the lead. For Richard Jewell, Jonah Hill was mooted to play the titular security guard, while Leonardo DiCaprio was in the frame for lawyer Watson Bryant, who represented Jewell when he faced an 88-day FBI investigation and intense media scrutiny after he became the prime suspect for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Games. In the finished biopic, Paul Walter Hauser (I Tonya, BlacKkKlansman) is Jewell and Sam Rockwell (Vice, Jojo Rabbit) becomes Bryant. DiCaprio and Hill have stepped back to produce, choosing firebrand auteur Clint Eastwood to direct.

Most of the running time is dedicated to the bombing and its investigation but there’s fun to be had when Eastwood establishes what Jewell is all about and how he became friends with Bryant. We laugh as he attempts to police a college halls of residence and is reprimanded for being over-zealous. Like Bryant, we wish he would lighten up, though his by-the-book stuffiness would later save many lives when he spotted an unattended backpack and herded the crowds to safety. Jewell’s overt nerdiness and close relationship with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) is depicted with the grace and precision one experts from veteran Eastwood, a no-nonsense filmmaker who’s helmed 38 features. When the bomb explodes, killing one and injuring 111 others, he tackles the chaos and horror of the evening with level-headedness. Richard Jewell was falsely vilified by the media after the attack and the director has great sympathy for him, which shows.

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Richard Jewell
Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in ‘Richard Jewell’. Credit: Warner Bros.

It would have been great to see The Wolf of Wall Street duo of Hill and DiCaprio back together, but it’s hard to imagine them besting Hauser and Rockwell. The former expertly portrays the arrogance and simpleton naivety of Jewell, while Oscar-winner Rockwell plays yet another troubled yet good-hearted bloke. Elsewhere, it’s a mixed bag. Hamm is his usual suave self as FBI agent Tom Shaw (a composite of real-life characters) but it’s dull to see him add one more white-collar douchebag to his CV (see Mad Men, The Report). Bates is more interesting as Richard’s Tupperware-obssessed mum Bobi, perhaps the only innocent in the film – and we, as an audience, feel for her.

Olivia Wilde’s role as Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs is more problematic. Though charismatic and suitably hard-nosed, there is no real-life evidence that Scruggs ever offered sex for information. A current reporter at the newspaper has described her depiction as “crass and contemptible”, while the AJ-C’s lawyer has threatened Warner Bros. and screenwriter Billy Ray with a lawsuit unless they include a disclaimer on the film’s credits to state artistic licence has been used in Scruggs’ portrayal. In response, Ray has accused them of “a distraction campaign”. “I will stand by every word and assertion in the script,” he told Deadline last month. It’s a sad state of affairs and one that sullies an otherwise excellent biopic.

Details

  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Brandon Stanley
  • Release date: 31 January 2020
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