AFI Fest: With 'Richard Jewell,' Clint Eastwood Yet Again Upends an Oscar Race Late in the Season

Clint Eastwood has proven time and time again that an Oscar race is not over until every last contender has screened. 

The 89-year-old filmmaker has become known for debuting movies at the tail end of the Oscars eligibility period — 2004's Million Dollar Baby, 2006's Letters from Iwo Jima and 2014's American Sniper all debuted between November and December in their respective years, and went on to major recognition at the Academy Awardsand now he has one more to add to the list. 

Eastwood finished his latest directorial offering, Richard Jewell, just days before its Wednesday night AFI Fest premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and, along with his leading man, rising talent Paul Walter Hauser, and fellow actors Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Jon Hamm, joined a Q&A afterwards at a nearby screening primarily comprised of SAG-AFTRA members.

Based on the response of the audience — including sizable applause during the end-credits and standing ovations for Eastwood and Hauser when they were introduced for the post-screening Q&A — the Warner Bros. production, which is set for release Dec. 13, looks like a serious contender in a number of major Oscar categories.

Written by Captain Phillips scribe Billy Ray, Richard Jewell recounts another gut-wrenching true story: that of an overweight and unextraordinary security guard who was on site at Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta when a pipe bomb went off, causing devastation on the ground. Jewell, who had first noticed the abandoned backpack containing the bomb and called in the threat, was hailed as a hero. And then a news report said he was the FBI's primary, turning his life into a media maelstrom. 

Hauser, heretofore best known for playing goons in 2017's I, Tonya and 2018's BlacKkKlansman, may have been cast as Jewell because he shares his physique, but he rises to the opportunity of a lifetime, capturing both the lack of sophistication and the sweetness of a very sympathetic character. Even in this extremely crowded year for the best actor category, he, with his Cinderella story, may have a shot at a nomination.

Just as likely to contend, if not more, are two of the film's supporting players, both of whom already have Oscars on their mantelpieces: Rockwell, who plays Jewell's lawyer in the most colorful of ways; and Bates, who plays Jewell's mother, with whom Jewell lives and whose life is equally upended when he falls under the veil of suspicion. Rockwell has been sizzling-hot these last few years, so it's not surprising to see him back in the mix, but Bates had dropped off the radar a bit, so it's a treat to see her still at the top of her game, especially in an agonizing press conference scene.

This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and has already irked a portion of Film Twitter. Some are angry that the female Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who turned Jewell's life into a living hell by naming him as a suspect (Olivia Wilde) is portrayed as having gotten her information by sleeping with an FBI agent (Hamm). Both the real-life reporter and the agent have since died, and there is no publicly available reason to believe that's what actually happened.

Others seem to suspect that Eastwood, a well-known conservative, only made the film because it offered him an opportunity to show the media and the FBI — two of Donald Trump's favorite punching bags — in a bad light. But this seems like a more frivolous objection: In this particular incident, the media and the FBI both indeed failed terribly. That certainly does not mean they always do, but it is a legitimate story to tell.

There is going to be a sizable segment of the Academy — and not just the old fuddy-duddies — who will respond to this movie very much, and who, as with Green Book, are not going to appreciate being told they are wrong for doing so. And we all remember how that turned out.