If it is an awards season, the name Clint Eastwood can’t be too far away. And so it is yet again as another Eastwood movie has just thrown its hat in the ring. Richard Jewell had a rousing AFI Fest premiere Wednesday night at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, as well as a SAG Nominating Committee screening at Harmony Gold followed by a Q&A that drew standing ovations for Eastwood and the man he cast as Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser. There also was big applause for co-stars Kathy Bates, who plays Jewell’s mother, Bobbi; Sam Rockwell as his lawyer, Watson Bryant; and Jon Hamm, who plays Tom Shaw (a fictional name representing a number of FBI agents). The real Watson Bryant and Bobbi Jewell were also among those in attendance at the premiere and afterparty.
The four-time Oscar winner for producing and directing Best Picture winners Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby should be back in the heart of the game with Richard Jewell, a very compelling true story of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics security guard who initially was hailed a hero for discovering a bomb in Centennial Park and saving many lives before it exploded. But he later was named a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, which desperately needed to find one considering the Games had just begun and pressure was on. Local paper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also is depicted as being pressured to be first in reporting Jewell as a suspect as this movie finds both the FBI and the media culpable in targeting Jewell. His life nearly was destroyed before he was completely exonerated 88 days after the investigation began.
Of course there often is controversy with any fact-based movie — more on that later — but this film puts Eastwood back in the kind of true-life story he has been attracted to lately with films about complex heroes such as American Sniper, Sully and now Richard Jewell. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the December 13 Warner Bros release in the Best Picture Oscar race, as well as several other categories including Directing for Eastwood — who at 89 could become certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest Best Director nominee ever. He is astonishing, no other word for it, and all of his actors had nothing but praise for him Wednesday night.
His longtime film editor Joel Cox, who told me Eastwood wants to keep working behind the camera until he is at least 100, said he was hoping to get the filmmaker to agree to let young directors come on their sets and observe, just to get an idea of how moviemaking should be done. Cox, who edited the movie as filming continued, said they delivered it to Warner Bros this week (it was finished just two days ago) — exactly five and a half months after starting production. The studio wanted it as a centerpiece of its Oscar contenders, which also include Joker. Well, Eastwood has given it to them.
The legendary actor-director told me at the Hollywood Roosevelt afterparty that he has been chasing the Jewell story for years and sparked to Billy Ray’s screenplay, which is based on a Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article as well as the book Suspect. First they had it set up at Fox, but an executive there deep-sixed it. Time went by and in 2018, after Disney bought Fox, it was revived again (the exec who killed it was gone). But new studio head Alan Horn couldn’t make it work there, so the project suddenly was able to land in the lap of Eastwood’s main studio, Warner Bros, after he decided to give it just one more try.
Everyone looking for justice and doing the right thing should be thankful he didn’t give up because the sad fact is that Jewell was a true hero, but the label put on him in unfortunate circumstances still has people thinking he was the bomber (Eric Rudolph confessed to the crime six years later). As Eastwood said at the end of the Q&A, this was something that needed to be corrected and fully exonerates him once again in a way only movies can do. “I think it is a great American tragedy that everyone kind of went after him,” the filmmaker said. “I realized how it happened. It was the first time Atlanta had such a huge thing like the Olympics, and all of a sudden in three days they have this horrible bombing, and they have to get somebody. But everybody just sold out — they sold out and didn’t even offer him the basics of the American system. The FBI and a lot of the media were unkind, and it shows good people can do bad things. Richard Jewell was a kind person and he got a bad deal.” Eastwood also noted that he’s happy the city is going to put a plaque in honor of Jewell (who died of heart failure in 2007) at Centennial Park, but he wants more. “That’s great, but I would like a street named after him. He deserves better. It’s a story worth telling. I wanted this picture in the worst way. I sold a lot of souls to the devil to get it made.”
At one time Jonah Hill (who has a producing credit along with others including Leonardo DiCaprio) was attached to play Jewell, but from the moment Eastwood said he saw Hauser in a small supporting role in I, Tonya, he knew he had found his Richard Jewell. The Best Actor and Supporting Actor races are ridiculously crowded this year, but it seems inconceivable that Hauser can be denied a slot. He simply is brilliant, completely inhabiting this role. Plus he looks like he could be Jewell’s brother. It is a remarkable performance.
The whole cast also is great including Bates, who could find herself in the Supporting Actress lineup. The SAG crowd loved her. And then there is Rockwell, who again is superb in another unforgettable turn. He won the Supporting Oscar two years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and was nominated last year for his smaller role as George W. Bush in Vice, the part that Eastwood says really caught his eye since he knew Bush a little and thought Rockwell captured him perfectly. This category is way overloaded, but I don’t see how Rockwell doesn’t make it three nominations in a row. For Hauser and Rockwell in particular, this is not a prediction on my part, it is an order, Academy members.
There is usually controversy with any true-life story, as we saw Wednesday when the AFI Fest had to pull The Banker from its closing-night world premiere slot that was scheduled for tonight. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman also has raised eyebrows in some quarters about the truthfulness of how Jimmy Hoffa’s death is portrayed as fact in the film. And as for Richard Jewell, there is already a proactive campaign being launched against it by Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who send a detailed email to various news outlets including Deadline on Monday, cautioning about certain things he has heard are in the movie that might put his paper in a bad light.
He says he will see the film when it comes out but wants to make journalists aware of AJC‘s concerns — most notably surrounding Kathy Scruggs, the reporter played in the film by Olivia Wilde who broke the story that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a suspect. The film clearly suggests she is trading sexual favors with the FBI agent played by Hamm in order to get the inside info. This also is intimated in the book Suspect, one of the sources the film’s script is based on as well. Riley says it is not true (though he was not at the paper in 1996) and is upset that it is being portrayed this way, especially in the #MeToo era. Scruggs unfortunately is not around to speak for herself. She died in 2001 at age 41.
Obviously there will be much more to come on this film, but for me a real mark of how Eastwood, Ray and this cast nailed it ultimately is just what the title indicates; it is finally the story of Richard Jewell and what happened to him at the hands of people who succumbed to the pressures of the time. Bobbi Jewell was a witness to it all, and she effusively told me as she was leaving the Roosevelt Party last night that this movie got it right.
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