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. Jewell leaves the firm to pursue a law enforcement career. At some point Jewell is hired as a sheriff’s deputy, but ends up discharged. In early 1996, he’s working as a security guard at Piedmont College, but is fired after multiple complaints of acting beyond his jurisdiction. Jewell later 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.
After being contacted by the dean of Piedmont College about his dislike and suspicions of Jewell, 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 created themselves.
Shaw is approached by journalist Kathy Scruggs of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Over drinks in a cop bar, Shaw reveals that Jewell is under FBI suspicion. The Constitution publishes Scruggs’s 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 in the news.
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 which was discovered to have made the initial threat of the bomb, and the 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 come to 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 pleads 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 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.