Clint Eastwood is quite partial to accidental real-life heroes these days and he’s found a good, if unprepossessing one, in Richard Jewell, a lively and none-too-flattering look at the “media lynching” of a sad-sack security guard the press decided was responsible for a deadly bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.

The director’s last five films — American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule and now this one — have focused on ordinary men doing extraordinary things, only to have them scrutinized, for better or worse, in the aftermath.

In format and focus, the new film emerges as a close sibling to the aviation drama Sully, which also centered on a man who became a hero by doing his job but whose actions were similarly, if less severely, picked apart by the press and authorities. Sully raked in $241 million worldwide and, while its box office might have benefited a bit from a guy named Tom Hanks in the lead role, the new pic’s concern with the vindication of an innocent man provides a similar dramatic trajectory that’s also quite satisfying. The Warner Bros. attraction world-premiered at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, bows nationally on Dec. 13 and should perform well with general audiences everywhere, but perhaps especially in the South.

Most Hollywood films about journalism since All the President’s Men 43 years ago have taken the free press’ side, portraying it as a scruffy if noble institution essential to the well-being of democracy. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) here take a rather different view of the Fourth Estate, portraying it as reckless, corrupt and immoral. At the center of its frenzy is the hapless and clueless Jewell, an overweight oddball who may well be the least likely leading man in any of Eastwood’s 40 — count ‘em, 40 — films as a director, but Paul Walter Hauser makes the most of it.   

Once intended as a vehicle for Jonah Hill, hence his inclusion here as an executive producer, the movie greatly benefits from the title role being played by a relative unknown; the casting enhances the anonymous Everyman nature of this ordinary fellow, who, in classic Preston Sturges fashion, has misfortune, and then a certain measure of greatness, thrust upon him. 

The nicely balanced script devotes just enough time at the outset to sketching an impression of Jewell as a mama’s boy loser and outcast to arouse slight suspicions that he could be a time bomb waiting to go off. A devoted student of the law — “I study the penal code every night,” he boasts — Jewell is also a video arcade regular who occasionally gets himself in trouble or loses security jobs out of over-zealousness, like busting frat boys in their rooms; “I don’t want any Mickey Mousing on this campus,” he proclaims, in a misguided burst of self-important authority. A once-upon-a-time cop, he boasts of a huge gun collection and spends a lot of time at the shooting range. He lives with his mom, Bobi (a wonderful Kathy Bates), who loves him and can lift his spirits by saying things like, “You’re still a good guy warding off the bad guys, aren’t ya?”

He is, in short, a non-entity, a man destined to live his life without making a mark on the world. But fate dictates otherwise. On the evening of July 27, a big crowd is enjoying a musical performance in Centennial Olympic Park when a warning call comes in about an imminent bombing. Jewell zealously jumps into action, beginning to clear the area where he has noticed a suspicious backpack. A pipe bomb goes off minutes later, killing one and injuring 111 (another died of incidental causes), but Jewell is widely lauded for his quick action, which prevented many more from being hurt or killed.

But after receiving initial thanks for his response to the emergency, this accidental hero soon sees his applause going quiet. A disgruntled former boss calls the FBI with his suspicions about Jewell, and a profile quickly takes shape of a misfit who triggers such a tragedy with the express purpose of then receiving public acclaim as a savior; it’s the “fake hero” syndrome. From here on, FBI honcho Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is convinced they’ve got their man in their sights — and, in a development that’s already stirring dispute and controversy, the film shows Shaw receiving sexual favors from real-life (but now deceased) Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (a raucously entertaining Olivia Wilde) in exchange for a bombshell tip. 

From this point, Jewell’s life becomes a living hell, with the media on his case day and night and the FBI invading the family apartment; the young man’s extensive gun collection only furthers the feds’ conviction that “he fits the profile.” What he needs is a good attorney, but a guy like Jewell has to take what he can get, and the man hustling for the job rates perhaps only slightly higher in his professional field than Jewell does in his. Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) may not be another Johnnie Cochran or Gloria Allred, but he sees that the poor guy is being railroaded and commits to clearing his name.

The mob of reporters covering the story resembles a plague of locusts, with any little tidbit being transformed into big news as the media tries to finger a culprit. Jewell, along with his mother, must endure this combination of attack and deprivation for three months until, finally, the FBI realizes that, from a purely logistical point of view, the young man couldn’t have physically pulled off what they believed he did. The reality lay elsewhere, but that is another story.

The film loses a bit of steam in the final stretch, but there is climactic strength in Jewell’s brewing sense of purpose and self-respect, which contrasts with the abiding conviction of Hamm’s FBI man that Jewell remains “guilty as hell.” Eastwood echoes notions that have surfaced in his earlier movies about the gap between American ideals and the more troubling reality of life.

All the principal actors are ideally cast and seem very keyed-up for their parts here; Wilde and Hamm come on very strong in competitive try-and-stop-me roles, Rockwell provides all manner of disgruntled but finally energized determination to fight and win, and Bates dabs her maternal role with lovely shadings that go well beyond what’s in the script. But it’s Hauser who carries the film in a rare and unlikely role, that of a presumed loser in life (the man did die just a few years later, at 44) who suffered very unwanted attention — but who, when he needed to, found a way to rise to the occasion.

Production companies: Malpaso, Appian Way, Misher Films, 75 Year Plan
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Paul Walter Hauser, Ian Gomez, Wayne Duvall
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Billy Ray, based on the article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Jonah Hill
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Kevin Ishioka
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Joel Cox
Music: Arturo Sandoval
Casting: Geoffrey Miclat
Venue: AFI Fest

Rated R, 131 minutes