The 2019 AFI Fest may have lost its closing-night attraction on Wednesday when Apple pulled “The Banker” from its planned Thursday premiere, but one of the biggest attractions of this year’s lineup still took place on Wednesday, its penultimate night, with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.”
And as with all big, previously unseen films that premiere this time of year — particularly if they premiere at an industry-heavy showcase like the AFI Fest — the question that hung in the air immediately after the credits rolled at the packed TCL Chinese Theatre was, “Is it an awards movie?”
The answer, I suppose, depends on whom you ask. As soon as the film ended, a handful of pundits and fans hit Twitter to declare that “Richard Jewell” had stormed into the Oscar race, particularly with supporting performances by Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates and the title role by lesser-known actor Paul Walter Hauser.
But when 11:00 rolled around an hour later and the review embargo lifted, the critics were respectful but not as enthusiastic. TheWrap’s Robert Abele, for one, called it “regrettably uneven, a nightmare made ordinary, sometimes ham-fistedly so, and occasionally even eccentric.”
Certainly, “Richard Jewell” is solid mainstream filmmaking from a veteran who refuses to slow down. At the age of 89, Eastwood somehow remains one of our most reliably prolific directors. In this decade alone, he’s made eight movies, skipping 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017 but making up for it by releasing two films in 2014 and two in 2018.
Those films include one undeniable blockbuster in “American Sniper,” which made more than $500 million worldwide; the sizeable hits “Sully” and “The Mule,” which earned $240 million and $175 million, respectively; and a string of films that didn’t do as well, including “J. Edgar,” “Jersey Boys” and “The 15:17 to Paris.”
And of his output in the decade, “American Sniper” was the only real awards movie, earning six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Otherwise, awards voters have tended not to be swayed by the recent work from one of the few directors to win Best Picture twice, for 1992’s “Unforgiven” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”
At the beginning of the AFI Fest premiere, Paul Walter Hauser referenced both those movies when he took the microphone and chided the audience for not being enthusiastic enough when Eastwood was introduced. “It was not near loud enough,” he said, “when the dude who made ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ walked out!”
The audience dutifully cheered louder for Eastwood, but it’s far from assured that awards voters will be as welcoming. While Hauser is wonderful as Jewell, a hapless wannabe who even the movie seems to regard as comic fodder until suddenly he isn’t, the actor will be competing in a category in which he’ll have to supplant at least three people from this list: Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” Adam Driver in “Marriage Story,” Robert De Niro in “The Irishman,” Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite” and Jonathan Pryce in “The Two Popes.” That’s a tall order.
Bates might have a slightly easier task to slip into the Best Supporting Actress race, though her presence there is hardly assured. And Rockwell’s chances in Best Supporting Actor will be hurt by the fact that he’s up against a bevy of performances that could be considered co-leads: Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Al Pacino in “The Irishman,” Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Anthony Hopkins in “The Two Popes,” Willem Dafoe in “The Lighthouse” …
As for the movie itself, its awards chances may be tied to how well it does at the box office and whether it captures any of the enthusiasm that views and voters had for “American Sniper.” “Richard Jewell” is the story of a man falsely accused of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, but it’s a measured, often quiet study of harassment and injustice that purposely moves slowly and doesn’t have a big ending. To some, that’ll be a strength; to others, a reason not to feel very passionate about the film.
Another tricky factor is how closely the film’s villains align with the current right-wing punching bags in Donald Trump’s America. Jon Hamm plays an FBI agent who routinely flouts the law in his investigation of Jewell, and Olivia Wilde plays a brash and vampy newspaper reporter who is such a caricature of the evil media that she’d be twirling a mustache if she had one.
It won’t help that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has already denounced the film’s depiction of its now-deceased reporter trading sex for information as “offensive and deeply troubling,” not to mention untrue, and it won’t help that the film’s portrayal of the FBI and the press as enemies of the truth may remind (largely liberal) Oscar voters of the director’s Republican-leaning politics.
Now, those concerns can easily be dismissed if “Richard Jewell” picks up an audience that finds its story engrossing. The crowd at the AFI Fest did, and by all reports so did a guild and press audience at the Harmony Gold theater at the same time on Wednesday.
But just as in the early days of the real Richard Jewell’s investigation, it’s hard to tell where this one will end up — though it’s safe to say that even if it doesn’t catch on with awards voters, Eastwood will be back before long to try again.