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Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, Richard Jewell, debuted with a glamorous Hollywood premiere on Wednesday, but the accuracy of the onscreen representation of one of the film’s characters, journalist Kathy Scruggs, is being called into question.
Played in the movie by Olivia Wilde, Scruggs is the reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who broke the news that Jewell (played by BlackKklansman actor Paul Walter Hauser) was a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27, 1996.
Eastwood’s film portrays the events leading up to Scruggs’ report. The journalist, portrayed as loud, brash and hunting for “something crimey going on anywhere,” offers to sleep with FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm) in exchange for information about the investigation. To this, Shaw replies, “Kathy, you couldn’t fuck it out of them. What makes you think you could fuck it out of me?” Shaw does provide Jewell’s name to Scruggs, then asks if the two should get a hotel room or go back to her car. While they are never actually seen doing so, it is implied that they sleep together.
At a post-screening Q&A for the film on Wednesday evening, Eastwood was asked about the making of the project and what drew him to the story. “I think it’s a great American tragedy that this man — everybody went after him, and I realized how it happened.”
“The people — Atlanta never had a huge thing like the Olympics,” he added. “In two, three days they have this horrible bombing and they have to get somebody and they happen to get the first person. And it happened to be Richard Jewell, and everybody just sold out and didn’t offer the basics of the American system, which is innocent until proven guilty. The FBI and media were unkind. It shows that good people can do bad things and you have to swing with it. But Richard Jewell was a kind person and he got a bad deal.”
According to Kevin Riley, the current editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there is no evidence that this transaction ever happened. “There has never been any evidence that this is how Kathy got the story,” he tells THR. “This came out of the blue.”
Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Games when he discovered a backpack containing pipe bombs and subsequently sounded the alarm and helped to clear the area. However, the bomb detonated, killing one person and injuring dozens of others. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell was soon the prime suspect for the FBI, and Scruggs reported it first in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A media frenzy ensued that portrayed Jewell as an overweight, failed cop. Eastwood’s movie is an indictment of overeager law enforcement and the malevolence to which the news media can rise.
“The mob of reporters covering the story resembles a plague of locusts, with any little tidbit being transformed into big news as the media tries to finger a culprit,” reads THR‘s review of the film. “Jewell, along with his mother, must endure this combination of attack and deprivation for three months until, finally, the FBI realizes that, from a purely logistical point of view, the young man couldn’t have physically pulled off what they believed he did.”
One year ago, Riley read a draft of the Richard Jewell script, which was written by Billy Ray and is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” That draft included the scene in which Scruggs supposedly trades sexual favors. The film went into production in Atlanta in June.
“Just because you see an early version of the script, it doesn’t mean that is how it will be shot. We were hoping things would go in a different direction,” says Riley, who has held his position at the news site for the past nine years. He did not work there while Scruggs was on staff or at the time of the Olympic bombings and investigation but was with the paper’s holding company, Cox Enterprises, during the Summer Games.
“It’s a very dramatic story, anyway,” adds Riley. “Why would a storyteller decide to add a detail that is not only insulting but is unnecessary to the drama?”
Raising additional concern, says Riley, is the reality that Scruggs is not able to provide her own account of the events and defend herself in light of the film’s narrative positioning. Scruggs died in 2001 of an overdose of prescription drugs.
In the wake of the investigation, the media coverage of Jewell has been widely recognized as unjust. After being exonerated, Jewell filed multiple libel lawsuits against outlets that included NBC News, CNN and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While Jewell received monetary settlements for the majority of the suits, the one against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was ongoing until 2011, at which point the Georgia Court of Appeals rejected the case.
A year after the bombing, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno made a public apology to Jewell during a press conference for his name having been made public as a suspect. Jewell died in 2007 at the age of 44 due to health issues.
Responding to a tweet that voiced concern that Richard Jewell would see Eastwood “bashing the media for two-plus hours,” the film’s star, Hauser, wrote on Twitter: “This is a character-driven, true story that represents humanity and harsh reality over strategic slant or ideological grandstanding.”
The movie’s problematic portrayal of Scruggs’ behavior fits within a Hollywood trope of female journalists having sex with their sources or interview subjects, which has been depicted recently in Netflix’s House of Cards, HBO’s Sharp Objects and Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, among others.
While Richard Jewell is based on real events and people and uses a reported feature as source material, it is a narrative retelling of events, which allows for creative liberties taken. Still, heavily featured in the film’s publicity materials, Richard Jewell‘s tagline reads: “The world will know his name and the truth.”
“At a time when journalism itself is under attack from a lot of corners, for a movie to fall into this kind of trope and reinforces a false stereotype — it is wrong,” says Riley. “It is especially alarming to see it happening in Hollywood. If there is a place where there should be great awareness and sensitivity to how women are treated in their profession, it should be Hollywood.”
Warner Bros. is releasing Richard Jewell in theaters on Dec. 13.
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