Richard Jewell’s tagline says it’s about “the truth.” It’s not.
It’s strange to see a seasoned filmmaker try to make a big, important point with his story, then cut himself off right at the knees with his storytelling.
Which is to say that Clint Eastwood’s true-story drama Richard Jewell — named for the man wrongly accused of perpetrating the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games — is almost a good movie.
But the film treats its two most important characters — both of whom died years ago — by very different standards.
The much more well-known of the two is Jewell himself (played by Paul Walter Hausner), who passed away in 2007 at age 44 from complications related to diabetes. In July 1996, he was working as a security guard at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the Summer Games when he found a backpack he suspected contained explosives. Jewell alerted the police and helped clear the area before three pipe bombs detonated, potentially saving dozens, or even hundreds of people from injury and death.
At first, Jewell was hailed as a hero by the press and a grateful nation. But when the news emerged, first in the local Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then in the national media, that the FBI was investigating Jewell in connection with the bombing — standard procedure, particularly for someone who, like Jewell, fit the profile of a “lone bomber” — the story turned into a media circus. Jewell and his mother (with whom he lived, played by Kathy Bates) were hounded by reporters for several months. The FBI searched their home, twice.
Jewell was never charged with a crime. The investigation was eventually dropped. By August, a majority of Americans agreed that Jewell had been unfairly treated by the media. And in October 1996, three months after the bombings, the US attorney took the unusual step of issuing a letter to explicitly clear Jewell’s name. Afterward, Jewell filed libel suits against a number of entities — Piedmont College (accused of giving false statements to the press about Jewell, a former employee), NBC, the New York Post, CNN, and Cox Enterprises, owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Jewell never sued the FBI.) All but the Journal-Constitution settled out of court in what was rumored to be more than $2 million.
That last case, Richard Jewell v. Cox Enterprises, dragged on for years, eventually becoming part of case law regarding whether newspapers should have to reveal their sources. In 2011, four years after Jewell’s death, the Georgia Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the paper, writing that “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.”
Just as the US Attorney’s letter cleared Jewell’s name, the Georgia Supreme Court ruling essentially cleared the name of Kathy Scruggs, the Journal-Constitution reporter who first wrote the story about the FBI’s investigation of Jewell. But she didn’t live to see it. Scruggs passed away in 2001, at the age of 42. According to a recent commemoration of Scruggs in the Journal-Constitution, friends believed stress from the case contributed to her death.
That story quoted a former coworker, Tony Kiss, as saying that Scruggs “was never at peace or at rest with [Jewell’s] story. It haunted her until her last breath. It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
Kathy Scruggs is the villain of Richard Jewell
But in Eastwood’s film, Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) is written as a kind of bitch-on-wheels, devil-take-all reporter. who — crucially, for the story — sleeps with FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm) in order to get information about the FBI’s investigation of Jewell. In the movie, she sneers at other reporters and fist-pumps at length in the newsroom when her story about Jewell starts to make national news. She’s not a very nice or scrupulous person, more interested in breaking a story than doing it ethically.
In real life, Scruggs did break the story, along with colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And that story was accurate: the FBI was investigating Jewell in connection with the case. It was also newsworthy, given that Jewell was already a national hero.
What happened afterward — the media circus, fed by outlets jumping on the news as if it confirmed Jewell’s guilt, and the rise of the 24-7 sensationalist news cycle in the 1990s — isn’t Scruggs’s fault. But Richard Jewell would like you to believe it is.
This version of Richard Jewell’s story acknowledges that its hero is not a perfect guy. He’s self-important in the way that can be dangerous when mixed with a little power, something that Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Jewell’s future attorney, warns him about at the start of the movie. “A little power can turn a person into a monster, Richard,” Bryant says. “Don’t do that.”
But in Richard Jewell, the true monster is a two-headed hydra, the feds and the media, which eats the little guy alive, or at least tries to. Both disregard the facts when they have a story that suits them, unable to imagine this ordinary, boring white guy as the hero of the story, a basically good citizen despite his large stash of guns and occasionally eccentric behavior. They’d rather win than pursue the truth. That’s what the movie aims to set right.
“The world will know his name and the truth,” the Richard Jewell poster taglines say.
Eastwood seems to not take his own movie’s lesson to heart
And yet, if that’s what Eastwood is truly after — boosting both Jewell’s name and the truth — then he’s messed up royally.
There’s no doubt that Jewell’s story deserves to be told, and it makes sense that it would be told now. He’s far from an unknown figure; in 2006, the year before Jewell died, the governor of Georgia publicly thanked him for his role in saving lives during the bombing. But in recent years, a cottage industry has grown up around retelling the sensational media stories of the 1990s with some critical distance, trying to understand how cultural forces and biases shape the way people are portrayed in media and the way the public responds.
The Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America and the Emmy-winning show The People v. O.J. Simpson explored not just the role of race, class, and gender biases in Simpson’s case, but also its influence on figures like Marcia Clark. The docudrama I, Tonya revisited the case of Tonya Harding from Harding’s angle, while Casting JonBenet explored how the lurid murder case and ensuing media circus encapsulated anxieties about an increasingly sexualized culture in the 1990s. The Assassination of Gianni Versace aimed to show how homophobia colored its titular murder and the police investigations and press coverage around it. The upcoming film The Eyes of Tammy Faye looks poised to reevaluate the much-parodied televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Season two of Slate’s popular podcast Slow Burn carefully unpacked the way that Monica Lewinksy was treated by the media, something that the upcoming third season of American Crime Story (starring Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky) will likely do as well. Another podcast, You’re Wrong About, makes it its mission to reexamine many of the figures and sensational news stories from past decades — mostly the 1990s — and shine a light on how truth and reality have often vastly diverged in public opinion.
This year, one of the most effective additions to the subgenre was When They See Us, Netflix’s four-part limited series directed by Selma’s Ava DuVernay about the Central Park Five case. The show dramatized the events around the Central Park Five, the five teenage boys who were accused of attacking and raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1988. All five served jail time, but DNA evidence later showed that they were not involved, and the convictions of all five were vacated.
The retelling proved so powerful that it led to real-life issues for the case’s prosecutor Linda Fairstein (played in the show by Vera Farmiga), who was dropped this year by her book publisher and targeted by a boycott campaign on Twitter in reaction to the series; she also resigned from the board of her alma mater, Vassar.
Richard Jewell makes a lot of sense in this context. It’s the story of a man who doesn’t obviously fit the profile of a hero. He’s a loner, socially awkward, not entirely likable, still living with his mother. He wasn’t an athlete or a soldier, and his colleagues think he’s a bit strange. He’s prone to trying to get on the good side of law enforcement by saying he’s in law enforcement, too, even though he’s just a security guard. (In the movie, he’s reprimanded by his boss at Piedmont College for pulling over drivers on the highway, where campus security such as Jewell have no jurisdiction.)
The FBI’s investigation of him seems prudent — preventing future crimes means ensuring a hero isn’t actually a perpetrator — but as the movie suggests, the nationwide media jump from “hero” to “villain” has as much to do with Jewell seeming a little “off” as it does with anything like prudence.
The fact is that pre-existing biases in an age of image-based media shape how we see people like Jewell. Or anyone. Racial biases were a complex factor in the case of O.J. Simpson. Class biases fed into how people thought about Tonya Harding. They shaped the fate of the Central Park Five, who share at least one thing in common with Jewell: They didn’t commit the crimes for which they were pilloried in the media (including, infamously, by Donald Trump). Those five young men were incarcerated for a combined total of 35 years, while Jewell was never charged, and he was cleared by the US Attorney three months after the incident. But media coverage and law enforcement investigation propelled by bias was behind all of them.
And that’s why Richard Jewell is so baffling. The movie’s stated goal is, like many of these films and TV shows, to tell the story from a different angle, reestablishing a more truthful record of what really happened.
So what happened here with Kathy Scruggs?
Richard Jewell invents a narrative for Kathy Scruggs
Scruggs has been dead for 18 years, and thus isn’t around to defend herself. But the way the film reportedly approached her character should at least give truth-loving audiences some pause.
According to Scruggs’s friends and her colleagues at the Journal-Constitution, those who knew Scruggs weren’t approached to help round out the portrayal of her character. They described her both as a “wild child” and as someone with a lot of “vulnerability,” someone remembered for “salty language, short skirts, and occasional antics,” but who would never sleep with a source.
“If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true,” one family friend said.
But that’s exactly how the movie portrays her. She’s willing to sleep with a source in order to confirm a huge story that will undoubtedly go national, and what’s more, she’s delighted about it. She’s happy to ditch ethics in order to push her career along.
The decades-old trope of female journalists having sex with sources in order to extract information from them (a variant of the stereotypical woman who sleeps her way to the top) has long been one of the most tired fictions in Hollywood. Sure: It must happen sometimes. But it’s a huge violation of journalistic ethics. Most journalists would never cross that line. There’s no evidence Scruggs did.
Yet images have power, and the stereotype is so deeply ingrained in Hollywood storytelling that people simply believe it is true. And as Sophie Gilbert noted in the Atlantic last year, after the HBO show Sharp Objects reused the trope, it’s caused problems for female journalists in the real world, who find at times that their male counterparts suspect they’ve earned their positions illicitly, and their sources may expect them to cross ethical lines for a story. And that’s not even to mention the public mistrust of journalists so assiduously cultivated by people with a political axe to grind.
Scruggs’s former colleagues insist that she never would have done such a thing, and there’s no evidence that she did in reporting the Richard Jewell story, either. They’re so adamant about it that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution demanded a week before the film’s release that Warner Bros., Eastwood, and screenwriter Billy Ray “issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” and that they “add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”
In other words, according to people who knew Scruggs, the scene in which Scruggs seduces Agent Shaw for a story is fabricated, drawn from an imagination shaped by stereotypes about female journalists that have been perpetuated through image-based media.
In response, Warner Bros. doubled down. “The film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material,” the studio’s statement says. “There is no disputing that Richard Jewell was an innocent man whose reputation and life were shredded by a miscarriage of justice. It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. Richard Jewell focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name. The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”
However, in a telling move, the Warner Bros. statement did not address the substance of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s demands, which involved the movie’s portrayal of Scruggs. And that refusal casts new light on the movie.
There are two possibilities for why the movie invents this story about Scruggs, and neither are flattering to the filmmakers
So Richard Jewell, a movie that purports to seek the truth about someone who was unfairly maligned in the public eye because of biases and the media’s lust for a good story, turns around and does the same thing to someone else.
Is it purposeful? I can’t say definitively. Clint Eastwood is hardly some slouch of a filmmaker, so there are only really two explanations. One is that Eastwood and Ray just didn’t think about what they were doing, and assumed that the only way that a woman like Kathy Scruggs could actually confirm this story — a story, again, that turned out to be true, even if the consequences were bad for Jewell — would be to screw it out of someone. That’s … not great.
Yet the statement from Warner Bros. makes another, more underhanded option seem more likely: that Eastwood and Ray were looking for a way to portray a real-life journalist as an unethical and morally suspect career-obsessed crusader as a way to punish her for reporting the story and advance their own agenda. They invented this damaging portrayal, against which Scruggs, unlike Jewell, cannot defend herself, while simultaneously currying sympathy for a man unfairly accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
And that makes it all the more frustrating. There was no reason to do this; the movie works just fine, and is more effective, without this fiction layered in.
Scruggs’s portrayal makes it seem that Richard Jewell’s “truth” tagline is a smokescreen for some other idea. It makes it seem all too possible that the true goal was to invent a story about Scruggs so she could serve as a scapegoat for the audience’s anger and as a focal point for distrust of an entire industry — something powerful people with an axe to grind are more than happy to do, whether they’re in DC or they’re Hollywood’s elite figures, like Eastwood.
But if we learn anything from the story in Richard Jewell, it’s that truth is truth, whether or not it fits your pet narrative.
So either the movie fails at understanding its own message, or it flat-out lies. What a disappointing way to undermine your own valid point, in a movie that’s otherwise well-acted and competently filmed. What a misreading of the power of images. And what a clear and ironic example Richard Jewell is, in its own way, of how biases poison our collective pursuit of the truth.
Richard Jewell opens in theaters on December 13.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson