Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davison and Jonah Hill   Director: Clint Eastwood   Screenplay: Billy Ray   Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, David Shae and Wayne Duvall   Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade:  B

When Clint Eastwood played lawmen in movies, they were guys who might have bent or broken the rules, but always in a good cause and with positive results.   In “Blood Work,” for example, Eastwood was an FBI agent who suffered a heart attack chasing down a killer, but came out of retirement to track down what he presumes is another murderer.

Now that he’s behind the camera, however, it’s quite a different story. In this fact-based film based on Marie Brenner’s article about the Atlanta security guard who was accused of planting the bomb he discovered at the 1996 Olympic games in the city, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), the FBI agent in charge, comes off very badly indeed.  Not only does he jump to conclusions about an innocent man’s guilt on the basis of a speculative perpetrator profile, but leaks the erroneous identification to ambitious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).  She’s hardly a prize, either, being willing to do anything, if you get my drift, to induce the guy to give her the story, which sets off such a firestorm that the accused must secure the help of anti-establishment lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).  His other great supporter is his doting mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), and after a grueling public circus that drags on for months, he finally wins a grudging admission from the Bureau that he is no longer a person of interest in the case.

This tale of an innocent man—and a hero, though an unconventional one—abused by the system of interlocked government power and press recklessness is a natural for Eastwood, and among his recent fact-based movies bears a striking thematic connection with “Sully,” about Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his stricken airliner in the Hudson in 2009.  That retelling was framed within the context of an often hostile NTSB investigation of the incident, in which his decisions during the emergency were debated.

Of course Sullenberger himself reflected on the choices he’d made, wondering whether they were the right ones under the circumstances.  Here, Jewel has no such qualms, knowing that he had absolutely no role in the bombing.  As depicted by screenwriter Billy Ray and portrayed by Hauser (who was so memorable as the wacky hit-man in “I, Tonya”), Richard Jewell is hardly an average Joe.  Physically puffy and submissive to a fault, he’s a quirky lawman wannabe who follows the rules so obsessively that he’s looked upon by those who employ him (like a college dean) and colleagues as something of a joke—until he discovers the bomb-filled backpack at Atlanta’s Centennial Park, which turns him into a hero until the FBI scrutiny makes him a browbeaten pariah for nearly three months.  The real bomber would not confess until years later, during which time Jewell remained under a cloud of suspicion despite the public quasi-exoneration, and the stress perhaps contributed to his untimely death in 2007 at only forty-four.

Simply as a “wrong man” scenario, Eastwood’s film is effective, building up audience sympathy for Jewell, oddball a character as he might be, as the target of a couple of unlikable villains, the smug FBI agent who treats him condescendingly and the reporter whose ethical sense is decidedly imperfect. (Unlike the lawman, however, she is given something of a redemptive scene in the end, tearing up when she attends a news conference in which Bobi pleads for justice for her son.)  Their extremely negative portrayal is perhaps not of great moment insofar as Shaw, a composite and so essentially fictional figure, is concerned, but Scruggs was a real person, and no longer able to defend her reputation (she died in 2001).  Her portrayal as a woman who used sex to advance her career has been condemned by those who knew her (and many who did not, but find the suggestion sexist and offensive).  Ironically, Ray and Eastwood are being accused of the same sort of character assassination of which they argue Jewell was a victim. 

If one can set aside that controversy and concentrate on the trio of characters at the center of the drama—Jewell, Bobi and Bryant—the film certainly works as a tale of a modern-day David confronted by a couple of Goliaths, the government and the media.  Hauser, Bates and Rockwell all have meaty roles, and each takes advantage of the opportunities they offer, while Nina Arianda is a scene-stealer as the lawyer’s aide.  Eastwood directs in typically low-key, no-frills style, abetted by Kevin Ishioka’s production design (especially good in its recreation of the Jewells’ middle-class apartment, where much of the action takes place), Yves Belanger’s unfussy cinematography and Joel Cox’s unforced editing.  (The team does, however, rouse itself to deliver an exciting, “you are there” recreation of the actual bombing.)

“Richard Jewell” naturally engages in compression and simplification in dramatizing the story of a man who was hounded for—as he explained—simply doing his job (though he did it with a degree of commitment many found off-putting).  But it’s emotionally compelling, even if in making its case it engages in some troubling melodramatic choices.