We seem to be in the midst of a year-end rush of movies that are turning out not to be exactly what we expected them to be. “Ford v Ferrari” isn’t about car racing; it’s about friendship. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t about Fred Rogers; it’s about Rogers’ ability to change people’s lives. And Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” isn’t really about how the FBI and the media attempted to turn security guard Richard Jewell from hero to villain after he discovered a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; it’s about the long, hard struggle of bringing truthfulness into the picture.

Memory is a funny thing. Most of us who recall those events all those years ago probably still think of Jewell as the bad guy of the story. We still have a picture of him - caricature-style - as the big, drawling, white guy loser. Some still wonder if he saved a lot of people’s lives or if he created a dangerous situation, then stepped in to save the day. This line of thought is at the center of the film, and though definite answers are provided at the very end, the whole affair still has some murkiness hanging over it.

“Richard Jewell” isn’t a whodunit. It’s more of a did THIS guy really do it? It does have some negative things to point out concerning the way the FBI and the media acted, but it’s a condemnation of specific people who believed they were just “doing their jobs,” and not a rightwing rant against organizations or institutions.

It’s a film filled with devils - heartless Atlanta Journal star reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) - and angels - lawyer’s assistant Nadya Light (Nina Arjanda). There are those looking for justice - honest, hardworking lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and, it could be argued, hardworking snake of an FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). There are innocents who get dragged into the awful circumstances - Jewell’s mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), and then there’s Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, who gained well-deserved notice in “I, Tonya” and “BlacKkKlansman”). What was Jewell, a hero or a terrorist? Or as one newspaper headline put it, a saint or a savage?

When introduced, he’s a supply room clerk at the Small Business Administration, still licking his wounds after his dream of a career in law enforcement fell through. It’s there that he meets lawyer Watson Bryant, but in short order leaves to work as a college security guard where, due to overambitious behavior, he’s soon fired. It was at that time, at the age of 33, still living with his mom, that he landed a security guard gig at the Olympics in Atlanta, where his job was simply to watch crowds. But ambition got in the way again, and he was regularly looking for any possible bad guys, on his own.

It was there that he stumbled upon a “suspicious package,” which turned out to be a bomb, which exploded. But it was his discovery of it, and his following of protocol, that saved hundreds of lives. It was there that he became a hero ... until the FBI - or at least FBI guy Tom Shaw - started wondering if he was a “false hero,” that he set the whole thing up because he craved attention. Until, on the sleazy side of things, Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs traded sexual favors with Shaw for information on the FBI’s possible suspect, which she could then turn into a big newspaper story.

Jewell gains some good guy fame, people are happy for him, he enjoys all of the attention, mom is proud of him. Then the tide turns. The FBI won’t back down, he asks for help from his old lawyer pal, shady little pieces of his past start coming out, media vultures take roost outside of his home.

This is a study of things intensifying and going out of control, of people trying to maintain some order within madness. There are remarkable performances from Hauser, Rockwell and Bates that move back and forth between anger and anguish. And there’s spot-on direction from Eastwood, who proved long ago that he’s a good storyteller. This is his best film since “Hereafter.”

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Richard Jewel”

Written by Billy Ray; directed by Clint Eastwood

With Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm

Rated R