"Richard Jewell" tells the story of the man wrongly accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games. Eastwood claims it's about the media and the truth — but now he's criticized for his depiction of the events.
"Based on a true story" is a line that often shows up in the opening credits of a movie. Films based on real events are particularly popular nowadays. Roman Polanski even called his 2017 film that way. In Based on a True Story, the filmmaker played with the different levels of meaning and truth, and the interaction between facts and fiction.
US director and acting legend Clint Eastwoodhad no such thing in mind for his new film, Richard Jewell. Yet the movie also aims to comment on the truth — and the 89-year-old filmmaker is now being criticized for his own dramatization of real events.
From hero to suspect
Richard Jewell tells a story inspired by events that happened during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when security guard Richard Jewell discovered a backpack filled with pipe bombs and immediately helped evacuate the Olympic park grounds.
The bomb exploded, two people died, and over 100 were injured. But an even huger catastrophe was prevented thanks to Jewell's quick reaction. The security guard was accordingly celebrated as a hero by the media. But during the investigation, Richard Jewell ended up being targeted by the FBI as a possible suspect — news that was picked up by the media as well.
The overweight security guard, a former police officer still living with his mother and possessing a large collection of weapons, was portrayed a failure who had everything to gain through a set-up that would allow him to emerge as a hero.
Could Jewell be the bomber? The press and the investigative authorities released alleged facts that later turn out to be false. The life of Richard Jewell and his mother became hell for three months. Journalists besieged their house; FBI agents searched it. The investigation against Jewell was only stopped weeks later.
After it became clear that Jewell was not the culprit, apologies and reparations from the police, authorities and the media were only half-hearted. Jewell filed several lawsuits against media outlets to have his name cleared, and they settled with large amounts of money.
But the case had its toll on the security guard. Richard Jewell, who suffered from serious medical problems related to diabetes, died in 2007 at the age of 44.
A controversial film
Clint Eastwood's film is more or less a tribute to Richard Jewell and condemns the way authorities and the press publicized the story. The media suspected him of being a "lone bomber" because of his appearance and lifestyle, without any actual proof, Eastwood told reporter Dierk Sindermann. Everyone was driven by their prejudices; the Jewell case is the worst example of what can happen if you don't take the truth very carefully, added the filmmaker.
Since the film criticizes how the media distorted reality, Richard Jewell is now under scrutiny as well. Even if it is based on a true story, the movie remains a fictionalized depiction of the case.
The Atlanta-based media company Cox Enterprises is making serious allegations against Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers productions. Cox Enterprises is the owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, which reported on the FBI investigations at the time, and which, according to Jewell, "pretty much started the whirlwind." The newspaper was also the only defendant that did not settle with Jewel.
In the film, Kathy Scruggs, the journalist who contributed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting in 1996, is accused of having used improper methods to obtain her information, trading sex for a scoop — a particularly blatant reproach in the age of #MeToo.
According to the New York Times, an in-depth article and a recent non-fiction book on the events do not mention any such scene. Scruggs died in 2001 at the age of 42. Through the controversial scene, the film was criticized for reproducing yet again Hollywood's sexist cliche of female reporters sleeping with their sources.
Cox Enterprises wrote in an open letter to Eastwood, its screenwriter and the studio that newspaper and its staff are "portrayed in a false and defamatory manner." The company is demanding a "prominent disclaimer" be added to the film, stating that some dialogue and events were created "for the purposes of dramatization."
Warner Brothers fired back with its own statement: "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."