American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely reported that he was a terrorist.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a security guard working at the 1996 Olympics who discovers a bomb under a bench. Because of him, many people manage to get to safety despite there being casualties. He is hailed as a hero, but later the FBI come to view him as a suspect on thin evidence, since Richard with his checkered past fits a hero bomber profile. Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) writes the story in the paper, and Richard’s entire life comes apart, devastating him and his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates). His attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is able to help and defend Richard, and eventually his name is cleared of suspicion. Six years later, the real bomber is found and confesses.
In 1986, Richard Jewell works as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he builds a rapport with attorney Watson Bryant. He leaves the firm to be a security guard at Piedmont College, hoping to work in law enforcement, but is fired after multiple complaints of acting beyond his jurisdiction. Jewell moves in with his mother Bobi in Atlanta. In the summer of 1996, he works as a security guard at the Olympic Games, monitoring Centennial Park.
In the early morning of July 27, 1996, after chasing off drunken revelers during a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert, Jewell notices a suspicious package beneath a bench, which an explosives expert confirms contains a bomb. The security team, including police officers, FBI agent Tom Shaw, and Jewell’s friend Dave Dutchess, are moving concert attendees away from the bomb when it detonates, and Jewell is initially heralded as a hero.
At Atlanta’s FBI office, Shaw and his team determine that Jewell, as a white, male, “wanna-be” police officer, fits the common profile of perpetrators committing similar crimes, comparing him to others who sought glory and attention by rescuing people from a dangerous situation they caused themselves.
Shaw is approached by journalist Kathy Scruggs of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. In exchange for sex, Shaw reveals that Jewell is under FBI suspicion. The Constitution publishes Scruggs’ story on the front page, disclosing the FBI’s interest in Jewell as a possible suspect. Scruggs makes particular note of Jewell’s physique, the fact he lives with his mother, and work history to reassure herself that he fits the FBI’s profile. The story quickly becomes international news.
Jewell, initially unaware of his changing public perception, is lured to the FBI office. He initially cooperates but refuses to sign an acknowledgement he has been read his Miranda Rights, and instead phones Watson Bryant for legal representation. Bryant, now running his own struggling law firm, agrees and makes Jewell aware he is a prime suspect.
Shaw and partner Sam Bennet visit the dean of Piedmont College, who reinforces their suspicion of Jewell. The FBI searches Jewell’s home and seize property including true crime books and a cache of firearms. Jewell admits to Bryant that he has been evading income taxes for years and was once arrested for exceeding his authority. Bryant scolds Jewell for being too collegial with the police officers investigating him. Jewell admits his ingrained respect for authority makes it difficult for him not to be deferential, even when the authorities are trying to do him harm.
Jewell and Bryant confront Scruggs, demanding a retraction and apology, but she stands by her reporting. Still not completely convinced of Jewell’s innocence, Bryant and his long-suffering secretary Nadya time the distance between the phone booth and bomb site, concluding it is impossible for someone to phone in the bomb threat and discover the bomb at the time it was found. Scruggs and Shaw have made the same conclusion, and the FBI changes their picture of the crime to include an accomplice. As their case weakens, the FBI try to link Dutchess to Jewell as a possible homosexual accomplice.
Bryant arranges a polygraph examination which Jewell passes, removing Bryant’s doubt about his innocence. Bobi holds a press conference and pleas for the investigation to cease so she and her son may get on with their lives. Jewell and Bryant meet with Shaw and Bennet at the FBI office, and after some irrelevant questions, Jewell realizes they have no shred of evidence against him. When he asks pointedly if they are ready to charge him, their silence convinces him to leave, finally having lost his sense of awe for law enforcement officers.
Eighty-eight days after being named “a person of interest”, Jewell is informed by formal letter that he is no longer under investigation.
In April 2005, Jewell, now a police officer in Luthersville, Georgia, is visited by Bryant who tells him that Eric Rudolph has confessed to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
An epilogue states that two years later, on August 29, 2007, Jewell passed away at the age of 44 of complications from diabetes and heart failure.
In Georgia, 1986, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a supply clerk at a law firm who dreams of someday working in law enforcement. He becomes friendly with Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the only attorney at the office who doesn’t talk down to him, leaving Snickers for him in his desk and playing arcade games with him on breaks. Eventually, Richard takes another job and says a friendly goodbye to Watson.
In 1996, Richard has been fired from a deputy job and is working as campus security at Piedmont College, where he gets into various altercations with students on campus. The college president, Ray Cleere, eventually calls Richard into his office to question him about these incidents. Richard believes he is doing his job, and tells the president that he himself told Richard he didn’t want any “Mickey Mouse” on his campus. Cleere fires Richard.
Richard lives at home with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates). His friend Dave Dutchess (Niko Nicotera) tells him not to worry about the firing since there are many security jobs upcoming, especially with the 1996 Olympics taking place in Georgia. Eventually, Richard does get one of those security jobs. Meanwhile, at the local FBI office, agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is assigned to cover the concerts at Centennial Olympic Park. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, crime reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is also assigned to cover it, despite her reluctance.
Night one of the concerts goes fine, though Richard is overly cautious and suspicious of every backpack or person acting strangely. He’s able to bring Bobi and they get to watch Kenny Rogers perform together. The next day, Richard wakes up with the runs and almost calls out sick, but doesn’t. Richard sees some teens throwing glass bottles, and shoos them away, then afterwards sees a backpack under a bench they were near. Meanwhile, a man makes a 911 call and tells them that a bomb is going to go off at the park. Richard, suspicious, alerts the police about the bag, who initially think he’s being ridiculous, but eventually agree to follow protocol. Police find a bomb inside the bag – the bomb squad is alerted, and Richard and the rest of the police there rush to quickly get everyone away from the bomb – which does explode, causing a frenzy and killing a woman. Luckily, because of Richard’s discovery, most people were away and lives were saved.
The next day the story is national news, and Richard is being championed as a hero. He is surprised at all the attention, and feels he was just doing his job, but begins doing interviews with Katie Couric and others. Bobi is incredibly proud. He is approached immediately about a book deal, and unsure of how to proceed, calls the only lawyer he knows, Watson, to have him handle the contract. Meanwhile, at the FBI, Tom is upset because the bomb went off under his watch. His supervisor tells him now they need to just find the bomber and stop him.
The FBI receives a call from Cleere, and so he and his partner Bennet (Ian Gomez) go to talk to him. Cleere tells him he suspects Richard could have done this, since he always wanted to be a hero and wanted this kind of attention. The FBI realizes Richard fits a profile of the “hero bomber” which they have seen multiple cases of – someone who creates terror so they can be a hero. Richard’s record of being fired and having complaints against him is suspicious, as is the fact that in his interviews he said how he wants to be back in law enforcement.
The FBI sends one of Richard’s cop friends in with a wire to have dinner with him, and Richard talks all about how the bomb could have been made, which makes them suspicious. Meanwhile, while Tom is drinking at a bar, Kathy approaches him to get scoop on the bomber. He denies to offer her anything, but she flirts and tells him she’ll sleep with him. He tells her Richard is the suspect and they leave to go have sex. Kathy fights to convince her editor to print the story that the FBI is investigating Richard, and he relents. The next day, when the story is out, it’s all over the news before Richard even knows about it.
Tom and Bennet arrive at Richard’s door and tell him they need assistance with something on the case, and he goes with them to the FBI offices, naively not understanding what’s happening. They tell Richard that they are shooting a training video to try to trick him into waving his Miranda rights, but Richard picks up on it and asks to speak to a lawyer, angering the FBI. He calls Watson, leaving multiple messages. Watson’s girlfriend and assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda) gets the messages and pushes Watson to call the FBI right away. They try to misdirect him, but he gets Richard on the phone and tells him to say nothing. He goes over to their office and leaves with Richard.
Richard and Bobi’s home is swarmed by reporters, and Watson goes over to consult with Richard. He asks Richard if he committed the crime, and he insists he didn’t. On his way home, Watson is shocked to find Kathy hiding in his backseat, asking him for information. He shoos her out of his car. Later, Watson and Nadya time the walk from where Richard was to the pay phone where the 911 call was made, and realize there’s no way he could have done it. Watson is interviewed on TV, and surprised with information about Richard’s background and being let go as a deputy on the air. He goes to Richard and demands Richard tell him everything for his own good.
The FBI arrive to search the house, taking everything, deeply upsetting Bobi as they take her tupperware and babysitting videos. Richard has lots of hunting guns, which doesn’t help him look innocent. Richard keeps being kind and helpful to the FBI, annoying Watson who has instructed him to say nothing. While Watson helps Bobi, Richard makes voice recordings for Tom, which deeply upsets Watson upon his return. Richard has heart pains but insists he’s fine.
Nadya learns that the apartment has been bugged. Meanwhile, the FBI takes Dave in for questioning. Dave tells Richard that they think Richard must have had an accomplice and that they think he could be Richard’s gay lover. Bobi puts on a loud TV show with explosions, and Richard yells at her not to do that when they’re listening. She begins crying, and Richard apologizes. Watson has Richard take a polygraph, which he passes. Watson goes to the Atlanta Journal office with his results to ask for a retraction, and chews out Kathy. Later, Kathy does the walk to the payphone and also realizes Richard is innocent. She goes to the bar to see Tom again with her information on Richard’s innocence, but he rebuffs her completely, insisting Richard had an accomplice and leaving in a huff.
Bobi gives an impassioned press conference where she sobs as she tells the public what they have been through, and that Richard is innocent. Kathy cries as she watches her. Watson and Richard go to the FBI to give a deposition. Watson pleads with Richard to not be deferential to the law enforcement as he always has been. During the deposition, Richard is polite, answering the questions, but when Tom viciously accuses him of being the bomber, Richard finally lays it all out and asks if they have any real evidence at all. He tells them the bomber is still out there. They go home, where Watson tells Bobi Richard did great.
Eighty-eight days after the investigation into Richard began, Tom goes to see Watson and Richard as they eat in a diner, and gives him a letter from the FBI letting him know that the investigation into him is over, though Tom says he still thinks Richard did it. Richard cries, relieved, and says he wants to see his mom. Six years later, Richard is working as a deputy in a new office, when Watson comes to see him to tell him they finally caught the real bomber, who confessed. Richard asks to go to his arraignment. Post-script says that Richard died of a heart attack at 44, Watson and Nadya got married, and Bobi babysits their two kids every weekend.