Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Paul Walter Hauser is having a great year and 2019 might actually be his breakout. Most people started taking note of him after his scene-stealing role in I, Tonya (2017). He appeared in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). He’s also had supporting roles in various TV shows, but, in what feels like no time, he now has this leading part in a major theatrical release, his first leading role in a mainstream film. Hauser clearly can handle it. He’s great here, playing the real-life, titular character, a security guard who discovered a pipe bomb during a concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. However, quickly Richard Jewell was the subject of the FBI’s investigation and media speculation because they thought he was the bomber.
There have been a run of recent films or TV programs that have been about men who have been falsely accused of a crime. Most of those films or programs are about African-American men and the reason is obvious because African-American men are disproportionately charged, convicted and imprisoned. Those statistics almost dictate that many of them are done so unfairly or even falsely. This past year, we’ve had If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Just Mercy (2019), Brian Banks (2019) and When They See Us (2019). However, this past year, we had content that was about a white American who was falsely accused, that of Trial By Fire (2019). What all of those titles have in common is that the men in question actually got put into prison. It’s not to minimize what Jewell experienced, but he wasn’t put into prison.
Sam Rockwell (Vice and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) co-stars as Watson Bryant, the lawyer who represents Richard during the whole ordeal. He’s a no-nonsense guy who passionately defends his client. He was first charmed due to Richard’s attention to detail and dedication to his job. He’s later gobsmacked at Richard’s behavior that tries to maintain his respect for the authorities, which is slowly being withered away. Watson identifies the authorities, specifically the federal government via the FBI, as the culprits or the villains of his client’s story. He also identifies the news media as a culprit as well.
At one point, Watson screams that the news media in concert with the FBI has ruined his client’s life. Watson believes that those things or people have ruined Richard’s life. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to accept that line and that reality because Richard didn’t go to prison. He wasn’t put behind bars. He got a ton of negative press coverage, which forced him to have to stay in his house with his mother. The government basically raided his home and interrogated him, but he was never charged and he never went to prison. From the time of the bombing to the moment he was exonerated, it was only 88 days or less than three months but all that time Richard was free. Korey Wise, who was one of the men featured in When They See Us, spent 14 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Cameron Todd Willingham, who is the subject of Trial By Fire, was executed when his conviction had come into doubt from third-party investigations. Thanks to the Innocence Project, which was spotlighted in the film Brian Banks, we know that several black men who were on death row for years have been totally exonerated. Their lives were ruined. What happened to Richard Jewell didn’t even come close.
Jon Hamm (Mad Men and Million Dollar Arm) also co-stars as Tom Shaw, the FBI agent who is leading the investigation into Richard. He’s not totally portrayed as a villain, but that’s his relative position in this film. He also makes a mistake that is undeniable. I’m not sure if his mistake is truthful in real-life, but within the context of this film, it’s a serious mistake. He knows it and later regrets it. Yes, his investigation into Richard is in retrospect the wrong thing. Certain tactics he does to investigate Richard are shady. However, the logic of why he’s doing it isn’t wrong.
Richard was the one who found the bomb before it exploded. He managed to be close enough to the explosion and not get injured at all. Any investigator looking into something like that would of course investigate that person. The recent Netflix series Unbelievable is about a police investigation into a serial rapist. That series was a very realistic look at a real-life investigation. In that investigation, the police look into a person who they think is the rapist but ends up not being the perpetrator. Yes, the police found that that suspect isn’t the criminal, but that doesn’t make looking into that person as something they shouldn’t have done. Yet, this film wants to say that looking into him was just flat-out wrong.
Kathy Bates (American Horror Story and Six Feet Under) plays Bobi Jewell, the mother to Richard. Seeing her reactions to what happens to her son is understandable and sympathetic. She delivers a speech at the end that is well done, but her more powerful moments are her quieter or less verbose scenes prior to that.
Rated R for language, including sexual references, and brief bloody images.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.