Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell, and the Rush to Judgment

There is a great film to be made about the story of Richard Jewell. Unfortunately, director Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is not that film. Underwritten and at times slow, the film features a depiction of one of the main characters that is so rabidly villainous it makes the entire film suffer.

The source material for Richard Jewell is wonderfully rich. Richard Jewell (beautifully played in the film by Paul Walter Hauser) was a humble, folksy security guard whose life changed when a bomb went off in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996 at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. Jewell identified an unattended knapsack under a park bench and alerted his superiors. Almost immediately after, an anonymous 911 call was made to the Atlanta Police Department, notifying it of the bomb in the park: “You have 30 minutes,” the voice said. The call was placed from a pay phone located several blocks from the park, and the man who placed it was Eric Rudolph, an American terrorist who would eventually confess to the crime. Twenty minutes after Rudolph’s 911 call, the bomb went off, killing two and wounding over 100 others.

On July 30, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a breaking story by Kathy Scruggs (played in Richard Jewell by Olivia Wilde). Scruggs’s reporting identified Jewell as “the focus of the federal investigation.” The article further claimed that Jewell “fit the profile of the lone bomber,” accused him of “approach[ing] newspapers, including the [AJC], seeking publicity for his actions,” and reported that “investigators [were] checking to see if his voice matched that of a 911 caller who phoned in a warning of the park bomb.” The AJC did not identify an official source or identify the origin of this information. According to a Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article, Scruggs’s two sources were an FBI agent and a member of the Atlanta police department.

CNN reported the contents of the AJC article, and for the next 88 days Jewell was beleaguered by reporters. He was one of the first victims of what would become known as “trial by media.” When his name was finally cleared, Jewell, who died in 2007, sued the New York Post, NBC News, and CNN, and settled with all three. The AJC spent 15 years in litigation, maintaining that its reporting did not meet America’s libel standards. The AJC finally got the suit dismissed in 2011, four years after Jewell’s death.

For the most part, director Eastwood tells Jewell’s story with little garnish. There are no dramatic Spielbergian tracking shots, music is used in a sparring and understated way, and the actors move the story forward without too much flourish. Sam Rockwell is solid as Jewell’s libertarian lawyer Watson Bryant. Jon Hamm lends his broad-shouldered Mad Men macho to corrupt FBI agent Tom Shaw, who at one point actually asks Jewell to sign away his rights. Veteran Oscar-winner Kathy Bates is deeply moving as Jewell’s mother Bobi. Stealing scenes is Nina Arianda as Nadya Light, Watson’s assistant. Light is a Russian emigre who distrusts any government: “When the government says a man is guilty, I know he is innocent,” she says to Bryant, who is sitting at a desk with a poster behind him announcing I FEAR THE GOVERNMENT MORE THAN THE TERRORISTS.

However, things skid into caricature with the film’s portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs. Wilde’s performance turns Scruggs, who died in 2001, into something like the conniving, serpentine love child of Jessica Rabbit and Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings. The high-octane reporter curses, boozes, threatens editors, and hides in a backseat to try to get a quote. Then she sleeps with an FBI agent to get the Jewell story, something that the current editors of the Atlanta Journal Constitution say is in the film but never happened.

Those who worked with Scruggs remember her as a tenacious reporter as well as a “wild child” who “had a vulnerability about her.” While she broke the Jewell story, Scruggs was also the person who figured out that Jewell could not have done it—that it was impossible for the security guard to have been at the pay phone where the call was made while being at Centennial Park at the same time. In the film, it is Jewell’s attorney Bryant who discovers the problem of the pay phone.

The Richard Jewell story haunted Scruggs for the rest of her life. “She was never at peace or at rest with this story,” Mike Kiss, one of her editors, once said. “It haunted her until her last breath. It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.” Perhaps she regretted not having done more research before deciding to publish. How simple, how basic it would have been to have simply gone to the scene of the crime and marked the distance between the bomb, where Jewell was, and the pay phone. Scruggs is not the protagonist in Richard Jewell, but in making her a devil in blue dress, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray have missed an opportunity. There is drama in a would-be villain who has a change of heart, a theme that worked well in the female journalist in the film Shattered Glass. Having Scruggs wrestle with her conscience and soul-search would have made her a more compelling character. She also could have served as a symbol of the transition from one form of journalism to another—from the kind of responsible reporting that made her slow down long enough in 1996 to realize Jewell could not have been the bomber, to the modern age of death by a thousand Twitter accusations.

Richard Jewell is a powerful film that is sharply acted and well directed. It is a valuable indictment of the liberal media. Yet as drama it loses something by dehumanizing Kathy Scruggs in much the way the mainstream media dehumanizes people like Richard Jewell. Jewell here is seen as a full human being—funny, shy, at times full of himself, both brave and insecure. By all accounts, Kathy Scruggs had a conscience—a conscience that bothered her about how her initial story about Jewell became fuel for the media’s Two Minutes Hate machine. Showing this doubt in all its ambiguity would have shifted some of the blame from Scruggs—who had two sources for her initial report—to where it belongs, namely CNN and the other media outlets who took Scruggs’s reporting and ran with it.

The major networks outdid her by digging into Jewell’s every idiosyncrasy and oddball friends and then citing those quirks as proof of guilt. One CNN producer even recently apologized for his role in the fiasco. “Jewell might have been the first victim of the 24-hour cable news cycle.” Henry Schuster observed. “He went from hero to villain in less than three days. Jewell was working security in Centennial Olympic Park when he discovered a backpack containing a bomb and alerted law enforcement. The bomb exploded, and soon, so did his life, after the FBI decided he was the suspect and the media piled on.”

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 13, 2019 at 08:32:47 am

The left hates this movie. Nice to see you are onboard with them

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Image of Michael K
Michael K
on December 13, 2019 at 08:40:43 am

Mark Judge has been published in the New York Times and the Washington Post, which tells the reader all he needs to know about Mark Judge and his biases.

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Image of Quaestor
on December 13, 2019 at 08:50:32 am

Scruggs' reporting went on for a long time, several months if I remember correctly. It isn't like she filed a story and then discovered her error and corrected it. Being remorseful years after she destroyed a man's life is not exculpatory when she filed numerous stories about his guilt. Too much feeling sorry for Scruggs and too little for the man she destroyed.

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Image of Bill
on December 13, 2019 at 09:08:39 am

The writer seems determined to focus on the minutiae and miss the big picture.

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Image of Joe Bloggs
Joe Bloggs
on December 13, 2019 at 09:39:29 am

The term for what she was is ‘Badge Bunny’

Scruggs, according to its recent hagiography of their reporter, once was found by police in the front seat of a cab, drunk, naked, and belligerent. They didn’t arrest her because they knew her. But you had to read down almost to the bottom of the article to get that information.

Too bad you didn’t even do that due diligence.

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Image of Visolatte
on December 13, 2019 at 09:46:54 am

"Having Scruggs wrestle with her conscience and soul-search would have made her a more compelling character." So Bloggs wanted the movie to lie about Scruggs in such a way as to make her look better then she really was?

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on December 13, 2019 at 09:48:10 am

My apologies. "Judge," not "Bloggs."

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Image of RNB
on December 13, 2019 at 09:59:22 am

"By all accounts" Scruggs had regrets and bad feelings.
If those accounts were authored by fellow journos, then they have little credibility.
That's the point.

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Image of WPZ
on December 13, 2019 at 10:33:25 am

That "whooshing" sound is the point going right over your head.

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Image of Bob
on December 13, 2019 at 15:01:17 pm

Probably not. Mark Judge was the teenage friend of Brett Kavanaugh. He has written for conservative publications also.

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Image of Jim
on December 13, 2019 at 15:13:43 pm

Well, maybe!
He is a filmaker, after all and probably is more interested in a good "story" rather than the truth. Gee, isn't that a redundancy.

Sort of like my dopey brother-in-law who wishes to see the SF 49'ers win so that the last game of the season between the 49'ers and the Seahawks will have greater "production value."

Both are misguided. Judge, I can avoid; my brother-in-law, not so much!

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Image of gabe
on December 13, 2019 at 15:51:15 pm

[…] Bay at Strategy Page It’s Boris Johnson’s Britain Now – Tom McTague at The Atlantic Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell, & The Rush To Judgment – Mark Judge at Law & Liberty How Labour Lost The Culture War – Yascha Mounk at The […]

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Secular News: Friday Late Edition (Final) – Big Pulpit
on December 13, 2019 at 17:04:01 pm

The Eastwood portrayal seems to be TRUE


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Katherine Gerard
on December 13, 2019 at 19:05:33 pm

Mark Judge is unhappy that the movie casts a bright light on Scruggs' flaws. Wilde has stated that -from her own research on the woman- Scruggs was in fact sleeping with one of her sources, but it was ongoing from before the investigation.

As for Scruggs' alleged guilt, she had plenty of time to write another story about what she got wrong on this one. At the least she could have discussed how she ran the story with no facts to back it up. She didn't.

Side note: Jewell later sued several publications including CNN and AJC. The Atlanta Journal Constitution is the only publication not to settle with Jewell, and got the case against them dismissed after the man died. That says a lot about the paper Scruggs worked for.

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Image of Casey
on December 13, 2019 at 20:26:20 pm

I wonder whether this was written by a man who actually saw the movie, as I did this afternoon. Eastwood and his scriptwriter take pains to show that Kathy Scruggs did (belatedly) second-guess her own work.

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Patrick O'Hannigan
on December 14, 2019 at 12:07:26 pm

Thanks for the update as I will also see this movie.

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Image of gabe
on June 19, 2020 at 06:26:53 am

[…] last year, in yet another Oscar-nominated movie, Richard Jewell, Eastwood told the story of the eponymous security guard who prevented the Atlanta Olympics bombing […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.