The apparently indefatigable Clint Eastwood - who turns 90 this May - has extended his directorial late period via a succession of generally well-crafted accounts of true-life stories, roughly one per year: J. Edgar, American Sniper, Sully, The 1517 to Paris, The Mule, and now this week's Richard Jewell. It's easy to imagine Eastwood sitting in his office on the Warners lot in Burbank, spending his mornings flicking through the newspapers, tearing out a few columns here and there that strike him as filmable, making a few calls in the afternoon to his trusted artistic collaborators, and gearing up for production a few weeks down the line; as creative processes for octogenarian filmmakers go, it's proven more consistently reliable than Woody Allen fishing around in his bottom drawers for half-completed, long-abandoned legal pads. The new film, however, must have derived from a decidedly yellowing clipping. The screenwriter Billy Ray has adapted a profile Marie Brenner wrote for Vanity Fair back in 1997 of the eponymous figure: a jobbing security guard who achieved momentary infamy the previous year after the pipe-bomb attack on a concert held to mark the opening of the Atlanta Olympics, Jewell was first hailed as a hero, then unceremoniously (and, it transpired, incorrectly) denounced as a possible suspect for the crime.
The question that hangs over the film - and which its ever-terse maker never really gets around to answering - is why Eastwood found himself preoccupied by Jewell in 2019, some twenty-odd years after anyone last thought of this distinctly minor player in American history. Was it just that he'd found the perfect actor to play him? As incarnated by Paul Walter Hauser - the rotund scene-stealer from I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman - Jewell is one of the most unlikely characters ever to be elevated to hero status by a studio movie: unathletic, far from the sharpest tool in the box, beloved of the mom he lives with (Kathy Bates), yet only ever a Happy Meal away from serious heart palpitations, our protagonist first presents as the prestige movie equivalent of Paul Blart, rather haplessly rolling from hired to fired by a succession of exasperated employers. If Richard Jewell the movie contains any lasting value - anything to distinguish it from Eastwoodian busywork - it'll reside in the empathy the director extends towards this chump: with Ray and Hauser's support, he looks past the bluster to spot the sweet, attentive manchild underneath, dogged and rather touching in his determination to make it as a real cop, even after his wrongful arrest. For all his bulk, this Jewell has been conceived as the kind of "little guy" the movies used to champion back when Eastwood was starting out: a Marty who finds himself in a maelstrom.
There's no mistaking where Eastwood's sympathies lie, particularly set against the rank cynicism and snottiness his film diagnoses in almost every other character: the snooty college dean (Charles Green) who deigns to have our boy fired for accidentally bumping into a student, the jaded FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who pushes on with the Jewell investigation in the face of increasingly shaky evidence, the flirty journalist (Olivia Wilde) who's fucking the cop for information. (Some controversy broke out about this latter portrayal after the film's US release: on screen, it has the look of one of those roles a performer takes on to work with a director, and not because there's anything there worth playing. There have been more of these in Allen's filmography than there have been in Eastwood's, but still.) One of the points Eastwood seems especially keen to clear his throat and make here is that liberal, college-affiliated types are guilty of their own damaging prejudices: he pulls off a nifty gotcha of sorts during the concert - a nicely simmering setpiece the rest of the movie struggles to live up to - when the camera catches sight of and falls in sync behind a restless dark-skinned fellow whose ominously bulging backpack has been filled with... big reveal: brewskis for his buds. What did you think it was?, the movie asks us. You big old racist, you.
What follows falls somewhere between windy and outright Trumpy. We bed down with a small community of so-called deplorables - the good-hearted Richard, his doting mom, and Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the small-time lawyer who leapt to Jewell's defence on the grounds he "believed" him - as they bond and present a counternarrative to that being prepared by the overreaching lawmen and the fake-news media. Maybe there's a comment about societal entrenchment that makes it vaguely relevant to How We Live Now, but it results in a far smaller movie than its lively opening promised, and one even selected Republicans might find a tad simplistic in its conflicts: the vultures camped out on the Jewell front lawn won't even let the big dude walk his dog without yelling questions at him, while a bumper sticker on Watson Bryant's wall ("I Fear The Government More Than I Fear Terrorism") pretty much speaks for the movie entire. In years to come, Richard Jewell may well find itself grouped with American Sniper and The 1517 to Paris in poundstore 3-in-1 packs and academic theses examining Clint's continued noodling on the theme of American heroism in the terror age. On its own, though, it struck me as nothing much out of the ordinary: a curious, not exactly enlightening anecdote, capably told and acted, it may benefit from the fact this story was dropped as quickly as the media seized upon it - but also explains exactly why everybody shrugged and moved on as they did.
Richard Jewell opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.