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‘Richard Jewell’ a study, not a diatribe, about runaway media and FBI agents victimizing an innocent man

Paul Walter Hauser commands the screen as the security guard falsely accused of the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta.

In a scene from “Richard Jewell,” the bombing suspect (Paul Walter Hauser, right) comforts his mother (Kathy Bates) as his lawyer (Sam Rockwell) looks on.
Warner Bros.

Here’s the thing about Fake News:

Sometimes it’s a real thing. Sometimes the news from the mainstream media really is fake — although it’s almost never because the reporters, editors and publisher have conspired to deliberately fabricate events and mislead the readers and viewers.

Sometimes we just get it wrong.

And when it happens on the national and international stage, as it did in the case of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, reputations can be ruined and lives can be shattered, and all of the retractions and apologies in the world aren’t nearly enough to repair the damage.

“Richard Jewell” is the latest economically filmed, well-crafted gem from the remarkable and indefatigable 89-year-old Clint Eastwood, who in recent years has concentrated largely on stories of ordinary but unique Americans thrust into the spotlight by circumstances, e.g., “American Sniper,” “Sully” and “The 15:17 to Paris.”

The aforementioned films were about soldiers and a pilot (who was a military veteran). This movie is about a cop wannabe who was hailed as an instant hero for spotting an explosive device at the Olympic Park and saving dozens of lives — and then tried, convicted and vilified by the FBI and the media when he was named as the prime suspect in the bombings.

To the credit of Eastwood (and the nomination-worthy script by Billy Ray), “Richard Jewell” isn’t some one-sided, vindictive diatribe against the FBI agents and the media mob that were so quick to shine the spotlight on Jewell. We understand why the investigation so quickly focused on Jewell — and we certainly understand why an ambitious, local reporter would run with an FBI agent’s tip as the foundation for a front-page story naming Jewell. When the guy leading the investigation whispers in your ear, “We’re looking at the security guard,” you’d be derelict in your reporting duties to NOT consider that a story.

The problem, as “Richard Jewell” illustrates again and again, is that neither the FBI, nor the local reporter, nor the national media that pounced on the initial story let the facts get in the way of that initial story. (At least not for a very long time.) Every time they were presented with evidence that could clear Richard Jewell, they conveniently ignored it or came up with unsubstantiated theories explaining away the evidence.

Paul Walter Hauser, perhaps best known for his portrayal of another sad-sack wannabe in “I, Tonya,” delivers screen-commanding work as the title character. Hauser’s uncanny physical resemblance to Jewell is just the beginning of this transformative performance; he also does a remarkable job of capturing Jewell’s pathetic and sometimes irritating bravado (as when Richard is working as a campus cop and tries in vain to intimidate a bunch of yahoos drinking in their dorm room), as well as his inherent likability and decency, as evidenced by his unapologetic devotion to his mother (the magnificent Kathy Bates).

Eastwood and his production design team and the cinematographer Yves Belanger perfectly capture the mid-1990s time period. The re-creation of the bombing on the night of a concert at Centennial Park is so accurate as to be unnerving.

Olivia Wilde (who happens to be the daughter of two real-life world-renowned journalists), gives a showy and initially off-putting but ultimately empathetic performance as Kathy Scruggs, the late, real-life reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who broke the story.

Jon Hamm plays a variation on his FBI agent character from “The Town,” as a borderline sleazy and sloppy FBI investigator who never wavers from his (100% incorrect) belief Richard is “guilty as hell,” even after Jewell is officially cleared.

Jon Hamm plays an FBI agent in “Richard Jewell.”
Warner Bros.

Sam Rockwell has become the go-to guy for scene-stealing supporting work (he’s even got a supporting actor Oscar), and he does it again here as Jewell’s attorney, who is in over his head on this case and makes some major mistakes, but never wavers in his faith in Richard and his determination to clear his name.

In perhaps the most impactful scene in the film, Kathy Bates as Richard’s mother addresses the world in a press conference in which she begs President Clinton and the FBI to clear her son’s name. Your heart breaks for this hard-working, loving mother who never wanted anything more than for her son to realize his dream of working in law enforcement — only to find them both living a nightmare created by the very type of men her son worshiped.

Yes, Fake News can be a real thing, and “Richard Jewell” is a strong reminder of one of the worst cases in modern history. That doesn’t excuse those who cry “Fake News!” every time they disagree with a story or an opinion.