2019 AFI FEST: It arrived late in the season, but “Richard Jewell” is here to shake up the awards race.

Clint Eastwood‘s newest film tells the true story of the security guard who saved hundreds of lives when he discovered a bomb at a concert in Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. For nearly three months, Jewell was the target of the investigation, becoming the lead suspect in the bombing that killed two and injured more than 100.

Paul Walter Hauser stars as Richard Jewell, the typical security guard with law enforcement aspirations. He’s the type that puffs out his chest and orders rowdy kids to throw away their beer before the actual police arrive. Who was fired from a university for, among other things, using his patrol car to illegally pull over drivers on the highway. Richard isn’t all that different from some of Hauser’s other recent characters, including Shawn Eckhardt in “I, Tonya,” Ivanhoe in “BlacKkKlansman,” and Raymond on YouTube’s “Cobra Kai.” They are lonely clingers looking to feel like part of a group. The types of men people would call losers because they live with their mothers and have dangerous, questionable hobbies.

The things which set Richard apart from those guys are the good nature and kind heart behind the man who has something to prove. Hauser gives a heartfelt, earnest performance that makes it easy to look past Richard’s idiosyncrasies and annoying habits. If you don’t love Paul Walter Hauser yet, it’s because you just haven’t see what he’s capable of. He taps into emotions we haven’t seen from him before, earning every ounce of the sympathy Richard Jewell deserved.

Academy Award winners Kathy Bates and Sam Rockwell are equally riveting and bring different levels of emotion. Bates plays Richard’s mother, Bobi, a kind and supportive mother who watches the government and the media turn her life upside down in the course of a few weeks. Kathy Bates is one of the best in the business and it’s no surprise that she is capable of such a rich and heartfelt performance.

Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, a lawyer Richard met and befriended years before, who ends up representing him throughout the investigation. Rockwell’s Watson is smart, no-nonsense and possessed with the kind of confidence that hides the fact that he is in no way qualified for the task at hand. Rockwell breezes through the film with calm assuredness, the steady presence Richard needs, wrapped in khaki shorts and relaxed polo shirts. This is a welcome respite from the projects we’ve seen from the actor in recent years.

“Richard Jewell” is also a welcome respite from the decreasing quality of Clint Eastwood’s recent filmography. “American Sniper” and “Sully” certainly have their merits, but it’s been years since the Oscar-winning director made a truly great film. “Richard Jewell” is Eastwood’s best film since “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006. It isn’t without its problems, but it reminds us of a time when a film from Clint Eastwood was something to look forward to.

One of the criticisms of his films in the past several years has been his lack of care for details, particularly in the background. That continues to be an issue, although the story in the forefront is strong enough that it’s easy to forgive an unenthusiastic concert crowd or a moment when Olivia Wilde‘s Kathy Scruggs yells at her colleagues, “You can all stop watching me!” when literally no one is watching her.

Kathy Scruggs is the worst part of this otherwise very good drama. Wilde’s performance is fine, though sometimes so over-the-top as to feel ridiculous. But it is the character created from the real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that crosses the line into something disgraceful. The Olivia Wilde version of Kathy Scruggs is an unscrupulous attention-seeker who offers sex for scoops. Editors from the paper say there is nothing to suggest this claim is at all accurate, and to make matters worse, Scruggs isn’t here to defend herself, having died in 2001. And to further highlight the egregiousness of this invented narrative, the script written by Billy Ray spends far more time on the FBI’s single-minded focus, rendering the treatment of Scruggs unnecessary and pointless.

FBI agents Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) are the real villains in this version of the story. The reporters and cable news channels certainly play their part, but Shaw and Bennet are almost mustache-twirling baddies, their tactics are so underhanded and mean. If we didn’t know so many stories about dirty cops and shoddy investigations, they might seem unreal. But, unfortunately, their tactics feel completely plausible and Hamm sells it with that certain way he has of being both charming and dastardly at the same time.

“Richard Jewell” sets the record straight on the man at the center of it all. Despite being cleared by the FBI, and despite the fact that the actual bomber, Eric Rudolph confessed to the Olympic Park bombing and three others, there are still people out there who believe Richard Jewell was guilty. This film gives context and nuance to the sometimes odd things he said and did, and humanizes the man who became the subject of hate and mocking. This is the story of an unexceptional man who became a hero.

“Richard Jewell” premiered at AFI Fest. It is distributed by Warner Bros and will be released on Dec. 13.

GRADE: (★★★½)