A lawyer (Sam Rockwell, left) counsels his client, besieged security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

A lawyer (Sam Rockwell, left) counsels his client, besieged security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

‘Richard Jewell’: Eastwood’s ax-grinding dulls a sharp story

The story of the smeared security guard works well at first, but sniping about government and media leaves a sour taste.

After a resurgence of the old-fashioned newspaper movie, with films such as “Spotlight” and “The Post” reminding us of the value of the news media, it was inevitable that another angle emerge.

That angle comes through in “Richard Jewell,” a curious comedy-drama based on a true story. The film looks at the ordeal of the title character, a security guard who sniffed out something wrong just before a terrorist bomb went off at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Initially acclaimed as a hero, Jewell was also investigated by the FBI for a possible connection to the crime. The investigation became public, and Jewell’s name was sullied in the process.

The film, written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood, chooses a fascinating tone for telling this story. For much of its running time, “Richard Jewell” has a light touch, as though the film can’t help but be amused by the various hustlers and goofballs on display — chief among them the beefy doofus who gives the film its title.

We first meet Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) as an over-ambitious gofer who dreams of a career in law enforcement. He’s living with his mother (Kathy Bates) and picking up freelance work at the Olympics, where his security duty coincides with the fateful bombing.

The media circus that follows has its comic moments as well, although as it goes along the film gets more scathing in its criticism of the press. And it’s true, Jewell was put through public scrutiny he should not have had to endure.

“The media” is one of those maddening phrases that ignore the variety of journalism in the world. Most journalists are admirable professionals, some are incompetent, a few are corrupt. The Jewell affair was a shameful moment for “the media,” for sure, and it serves as a useful reminder of what happens when guesswork (and the need to fill airtime with speculation) rises to the surface.

The film suggests that an Atlanta newspaper reporter (played by Olivia Wilde) slept with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) in exchange for a scoop. The newspaper denies this and is threatening legal action over the film’s portrayal of the reporter, so perhaps we’ll find out where dramatic license begins and ends.

As “Richard Jewell” moves toward its climax, the snipes about “the government” and “the media” increase, adding a weirdly paranoid flavor to what has been a clever movie. The actual bomber was an anti-government nutcase who also bombed a gay bar and a couple of abortion clinics, something the film doesn’t mention.

If the film leaves behind a sour aftertaste, it does succeed for half its running time as a satirical comedy. In the early going, director Eastwood rarely places a foot wrong, especially in painting Jewell as a likable dude who’s also just a little exasperating.

A great deal of credit goes to the actor who plays him, Paul Walter Hauser. He previously turned in a small gem of a performance in “I, Tonya,” as the cretinous co-conspirator convinced of his own high intelligence.

Here, Hauser creates a wonderfully funny portrait of a schlub who gets caught in the cogs of fame. His delivery is exactly right, and the way he clambers out of a La-Z-Boy recliner is a case study in acting with the body.

The cast also includes Sam Rockwell as a lawyer and Nina Arianda as his assistant; both give deft performances, especially when the movie sticks in the vein of comic Americana. That stuff is so well done, it makes you regret Eastwood’s determination to grind an ax on this intriguing story.

“Richard Jewell” (2½ stars)

The story of the security guard who sniffed out the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, and then became a publicly smeared suspect himself. For a while the film works as a study in comic Americana, although eventually its snipes about “the media” and “the government” leave a sour aftertaste. Paul Walter Hauser is terrific in the title role; Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates co-star, under Clint Eastwood’s direction.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

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