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Sam Rockwell, left and Paul Walter Hauser star in Richard Jewell, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

  • Richard Jewell
  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Written by Billy Ray
  • Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates
  • Classification R
  • 129 minutes

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Some men are born to be movie gods and some men are born to be character actors – the schlubby guys in the margins, rumpled and pockmarked and altogether too real, cast to ensure that a film retains some semblance to everyday existence. Sometimes, very rarely, these performers can leverage their eccentricity – that is, their complete normalcy – into starring roles. A Paul Giamatti, or a Philip Seymour Hoffman. But more often, these hey-it’s-that-guy journeymen are onscreen to provide balance to genetically sculpted cheekbones and peerless grins.

What’s new in theatres and streaming this week, including Michael Bay’s enthralling 6 Underground and the unnecessary but entertaining Jumanji: The Next Level

Paul Walter Hauser is a natural-born character actor. The Michigan native has so far made a tidy career of playing ne’er-do-well losers and mopey dopes, offering hmm-looks-familiar colour in everything from Oscar contenders such as I, Tonya to already forgotten comedies such as Super Troopers 2. And until Clint Eastwood came calling, it seemed that Hauser would continue to build his IMDb profile in such a fashion. But now, with Eastwood’s new drama Richard Jewell, Hauser is firmly in Giamatti territory. The man has star power.

As Jewell, the Atlanta security guard who was wrongly suspected of being responsible for the deadly 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, Hauser is a fully realized personification of stunted male inadequacy and thwarted expectations. Having been raised to obey and almost idolize authority – and equipped with a burning desire to one day be part of such officialdom – Jewell is a fascinating mixture of good intentions and curdled hopes.

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As the hero goes from being revered by the public to being worn down to a nub by the FBI, a confounding actorly challenge emerges: How do you make a character both empathetic and pitiful, familiar and uncomfortable? Jewell saved lives that summer night in 1996, but he also goes through life like a lost puppy dog who refuses to accept that he’s now a stray – cute at first, pathetic as time marches on. He constantly says how he wants to spend his life protecting people, yet he pushes the limits of the little power he is granted. He wants to dedicate his life to the law, yet he doesn’t advocate for his own rights.

The film tells the story of the titular security guard who was wrongly suspected of being responsible for the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

CLAIRE FOLGER/Warner Bros.

With his tightly controlled physicality and deeply sincere line readings, Hauser nails all these contradictory elements and impulses. The role is completely his own, to the point that you feel that this is less after-the-fact performance and more real-time docudrama. Perhaps Hauser's work is so surprising and sharply felt because no other filmmaker has given the actor such an opportunity before. We've all been accustomed to seeing him as nothing more than a punchline, as a piece of the background, when we see him at all.

Yet, Hauser is just as skilled and invested an actor as any of the more critically certified players alongside him here, including Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s anti-authoritarian lawyer and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s overprotective mother. Other actors have come close to playing Jewell over the years (Jonah Hill most notably), but Hauser invests and embeds himself so fully into the role that it becomes pointless to imagine the project without him.

Actually, Hauser might be the only reason to seek out Eastwood’s latest film – its quick construction and sour conceit reek of the director’s worst latter-day tendencies. Similar to the director’s 2018 films, The 15:17 to Paris and The Mule, Richard Jewell was produced at breakneck speed, with shooting commencing just six months ago. And as with The Mule and The 15:17 to Paris, it is too easy to see how recklessly the film came together, to glimpse its many seams and duct-taped realization.

This hastiness can be found in everything from the way Eastwood shoots a crowd scene – the extras seem to be having “fun” at gunpoint, or maybe that’s because they’re forced to dance to the Macarena – to the shoddy set design to the way he throws a good deal of his cast to the wolves. Jon Hamm, as a bored and horny FBI agent, and Olivia Wilde, as an equally horny and brazenly unethical newspaper reporter, get the worst of the bargain, both actors turning in wildly loud performances that seem ported in from a particularly lascivious cartoon. (Wilde’s coarse and crass portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) journalist Kathy Scruggs has so inflamed the late journalist’s colleagues that the AJC this week threatened filmmakers with a defamation lawsuit. Warner Bros. replied that “The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”)

The film’s politics, meanwhile, are equally absurd in their screeching volume, although at least you sense Eastwood’s conviction on this front. Similar to The Mule, The 15:17 to Paris, Sully and American Sniper, Richard Jewell is a red-state-coded tale of an ordinary patriot who proves himself under pressure, only to be later undermined by malicious, often bureaucratic forces beyond his control. That Eastwood uses his new film to explicitly make those threats two American institutions currently under fire from the sitting U.S. President – the FBI and the media – is, at least, interesting. That he does absolutely nothing new with this line of inquiry – that Eastwood fails to treat Richard Jewell’s twin nemeses as little more than moustache-twirling villains – is a failure.

So just as Richard Jewell saved the day, Paul Walter Hauser is left to rescue Richard Jewell. And the world thanks him for his service.

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Richard Jewell opens Dec. 13

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