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.”