Opening in theaters this weekend is ‘’Richard Jewell’’, Clint Eastwood’s latest foray into the true-from-life dramas the director has made marketable. The film details the events of the Atlanta Olympics bombing and the effects it had on the central figure Jewell, the security guard who saw his life upended after heroically saving lives that day. The release is timed as an awards season hopeful, with actress Kathy Bates already receiving a nomination for a Golden Globe.
What is remarkable is that this decades-old story not only carries cinematic drama but also has a remarkable amount of relevance today. The themes of an out of control press corps and a potentially manipulative FBI land squarely beside our current environment of media bias and a Bureau being looked at as potentially driven by politics.
The central focus of the journalistic misdeeds in the film is on the newspaper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and its lead reporter on the story Kathy Scruggs, portrayed by Olivia Wilde. The AJC has taken exception to its portrayal in the film. taking particular offense at scenes in which Scruggs is shown to have an affair with an FBI agent, leading her to the Jewell investigation.
The newspaper responded proactively with a set of lawyers issuing a letter demanding the studio — Warner Brothers — give an onscreen disclaimer stating portions of the film were created for the script. ‘’Some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters. We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”
In a companion email that editor-in-chief at AJC Kevin Riley sent out with the letter, he too expressed his disapproval. ‘’I wanted to clarify the accuracy of several critical moments at that time,’’ states Riley, ‘’versus the way they are inaccurately portrayed in the film. This is essential because the underlying theme of the movie is that the FBI and press are not to be trusted.’’
Right away we see a problem, and it is one that perfectly encapsulates the problems we have been seeing with the modern press. Clearly Riley, and the paper, make attempts to get out in front of the release and reframe the narrative. What is revealing is that this is bluster over details of which they have no facts to support. Just looking at one detail exposes the hysteria of the reaction. This film is not a documentary, it is a dramatic narrative. Hollywood has only begun manipulation of details in these films since the beginning of films.
These lawyers and Riley exposed they do not know of what they complain, starting with the fact that ‘Richard Jewell’ already sports such a disclaimer. Ahead of the end credits is a title card that comes up that makes the declaration of some events that were created. As for Riley, he exposes himself as well with this line– ’“Although I’ve yet to see this movie, a colleague of mine has seen a preview.’’ Huh. Where have we recently seen people rushing forward with declarations of wrong-doing based on third-hand information being passed along?
The paper is taking this firm stand about the portrayal of Scruggs — whom it needs to be noted Riley had never met as his career at the paper was after her departure — while trying to paper over the way the AJC portrayed Jewell years ago. Riley and others are deeply offended by what they deem to be a character misrepresentation, yet what the paper did in slandering Jewell was far more egregious, and not done for mere entertainment value, such as the film does.
Take a look at this passage that the AJC published in its description of Richard Jewell, back as the story was breaking.
“Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. ’This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wanna-be’ who seeks to become a hero.’’
Those are rather damning words, and yet entirely speculative. It was later found that there was no official decree from law enforcement that delivered this ‘’profile’’. It was created entirely by the AJC. Those very words were written by Kathy Scruggs.
Later, as the coverage of Richard Jewell by the newspaper expanded, it went so far as to compare Jewell to the infamous Atlanta-area serial killer Wayne Williams. This was all done, again, without any supportive evidence. As described by Atlanta Magazine at the time, ‘’Four days later the world turned inside out, and [Jewell] became the focus of the FBI investigation. For the media it was too sexy to resist: Hero turns suspect.
Warner Brothers for its part is not the least bit impressed by the legal threat. In issuing its own statement the studio holds firm and turns the focus onto the AJC. ‘’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.’’
Even Olivia Wilde is standing firm. While the newspaper thinks it is ghastly to show their reporter engaging in a physical affair Wilde turns the interpretation of things on the accusers. In response to the outrage to what Wilde calls ‘’one inferred moment in the film‘’ she sets the record with a pithy piece of wisdom.
“I think people have a hard time accepting sexuality in female characters without allowing it to entirely define that character. We don’t do that to men, we don’t do that to James Bond — we don’t say James Bond isn’t a real spy because he gets his information sometimes by sleeping with women as sources. This is very specific to female characters, we’ve seen it over and over again, and I think that Kathy Scruggs is an incredibly dynamic, nuanced, dogged, intrepid reporter. By no means was I intending to suggest that as a female reporter, she needed to use her sexuality. I come from a long line of journalists — my mom’s been a journalist for 35 years — there’s no way I would want to suggest that.”
It is so very revealing to see a newspaper react in this fashion. While the movie is certainly an indictment on the media complex in this country it is hardly the cause of the public distrust. Seeing a newspaper complain about a film it admits not having seen it follows the contemporary template of news outlets delivering a narrative without regard to fact-gathering. In complaining about how it was shown on camera to create a story of a man back then the very same newspaper is engaging in the very same activity today.
While thinking they are blunting a wrongful message portrayed in a movie the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conveys the problem with our press industry better than the film could hope to achieve. In other words, the AJC ends up proving Clint Eastwood correct.