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'Richard Jewell' review: Solid drama marred by questionable plot device

Paul Walter Hauser as the title character in

Paul Walter Hauser as the title character in "Richard Jewell."   Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT A Georgia security guard discovers a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, only to become a suspect.

CAST Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwelll, Olivia Wilde

RATED R (language, some bloodshed)

LENGTH 2:09

BOTTOM LINE A compelling account of a hero smeared by the media, though Eastwood's film treats one real-life reporter almost as badly.

Hate the media? This is a good week for you, with the releases of both "Bombshell," which portrays Fox News as a hotbed of sexual harassment, and Clint Eastwood's "Richard Jewell," about the real-life hero who rose to fame by discovering a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, only to be tarred and feathered as the suspect by various newspapers and networks. Both movies paint a poisonous picture of journalism and resort to poetic license to do so, but "Richard Jewell" goes beyond the pale, trafficking in unfair tactics of its own.

That's too bad, because "Richard Jewell" is an otherwise solid drama whose central message — the way a private citizen can be crushed by the wheels of government, media and public opinion — is worth hearing. The film also sits nicely among Eastwood's recent string of true-hero stories, including "American Sniper," "Sully" and "The 15:17 to Paris." By casting the relatively unknown actor Paul Walter Hauser in the title role, Eastwood, 89, proves he's still willing to experiment within a traditional formula.

The film certainly doesn’t lionize Jewell, played to perfection by Hauser ("I, Tonya") as a wannabe cop with several strikes against him. Among them are obesity, social awkwardness and a tendency to bully once he gets a badge. He's the kind of guy who likes to yell "Get the lead out of your pants!" — which is exactly what he does when he finds a nai -bomb under a bench at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, alerts authorities and surely saves countless lives.

Enter the real-life reporter, Kathy Scruggs, or at least the film's idea of her, played by Olivia Wilde. It isn't enough to paint Scruggs as ambitious, heartless and obnoxious. Eastwood and his screenwriter, Billy Ray ("Captain Phillips"), must also paint her as a sexed-up party girl and a lousy writer (she begs another reporter for his help with the story she broke). Worse, they show her sleeping with a source (Jon Hamm as the fictional FBI agent Tom Shaw), an event not described in the Vanity Fair article this movie is based on. The character stinks of misogyny, and it's a shame that Wilde, the daughter of journalists and the director behind the groundbreaking pro-female comedy "Booksmart," would agree to play this version of a reporter who died in 2001 and isn't here to object.

That doesn’t fully overshadow the movie's better attributes, among them Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, the attorney who comes to Jewell's rescue, and an excellent Kathy Bates as Jewell's distraught mother, Bobi. But the irony of this movie stretching the truth to sell a juicier story is hard to overlook. As of press time, the paper Scruggs worked for, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has demanded that Warner Bros. add a disclaimer to the film. 

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