Credit: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

Heroes aren’t supposed to look like Richard Jewell. They look like Bradley Cooper or Matt Damon or Tom Hanks, all men who have starred in Clint Eastwood movies over the last decade; they look, as more than half a century of cinema has taught us, like Clint Eastwood.

Jewell, the real-life Atlanta security guard played in the 89-year-old director’s latest film by Paul Walter Hauser, is the kind of guy who most eyes pass over, or only pause on long enough to dismiss: awkward and heavyset, almost boneless in his broad, soft proportions. But America still embraced him — for a few days at least — when he became an unlikely savior in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, correctly identifying a backpack full of explosives as a credible threat and preserving uncountable lives when he alerted officers and helped clear the scene. Within a week, he was also the FBI’s prime suspect.

As a filmmaker, Eastwood may not be famed for subtlety, but he does have a way with economy. And he delivers Jewell’s story with almost no unnecessary flourishes; a taut, streamlined drama leavened by crucial doses of empathy. Though it’s hard to say whether the movie would work at nearly the level that it does without the extraordinary performance of Hauser, an actor maybe best known as Jeff Gillooly’s hapless sidekick in I, Tonya or for his recurring role on the DirecTV series Kingdom.

He’s phenomenal in almost every scene; a gentle, lumbering bumbler with a drawl so low and slow he sounds like Huckleberry Hound on Quaaludes, but also a man with a much stricter moral code and sense of duty than his patchy resumé — mostly horizontal or downwardly mobile in the business of law enforcement — implies.

Hamstrung in the aftermath of the bombing and under intense pressure to solve the case, the FBI quickly turns to the theory that Jewell fits the profile they’re looking for: a single white man, lonely and unimportant and longing to play a bigger part in the world. He lives with his elderly mother (an excellent Kathy Bates), and the only other person he can think of to call when he’s accused is a guy who was nice to him a few times at a former job, an itinerant lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).

Jon Hamm, as the agent who comes after him like a hammer shark, doesn’t exactly earn a gold star for nuance. But at least he’s playing a composite; It’s Olivia Wilde’s role as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs that has rightly come under heavy fire; in the film, she readily offers sex in exchange for story tips, a charge her former colleagues strenuously deny there is any evidence for. (Scruggs can’t defend herself; she died in 2001, at age 42.)

Aside from that gross slander and all the nasty, tired things it implies about female journalists, she’s also a poorly written character, brittle and much too broad. That sour — and unfortunately now very noisy — note is even more regrettable and ironic in a film that works so hard to expose the damage done when assumptions are made, reputations maligned, and good lives ruined. Jewell, too, is no longer here to tell his story, and Richard does that very well; it’s just a shame that his truth has come at the cost of another’s. B+

Related content:

Richard Jewell (2019 Movie)
Paul Walter Hauser stars as the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell.
  • Movie