2019 has been a year loaded with conflict and backlash, but no other film seems to have caused as much of an uproar as Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. A bio-drama based on the events of the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, this was bound to cause some uproar for fudging the facts a little. Sadly, it seems Eastwood has managed to completely fabricate certain character traits for the sake of a story.
For those unaware of the events this film is based on, I’ll give a quick summary. Richard Jewell was a security guard working at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics when he discovered a backpack loaded with pipe bombs. After evacuating hundreds of people and saving many lives, he was heralded a hero before police turned their suspicions on him. What followed was an incredibly heated media circus that cast doubt on the man’s character and crucified him as a sociopath in the eyes of the public. He was eventually exonerated of the crime (after the police found the real culprit), but the misinformation spread by the media nearly destroyed his career.
One of the outlets that tarnished his reputation, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, is what started the controversy surrounding this film. While taking no quarrel with its input in ruining a man’s life, the publication is finding an issue with the depiction of reporter Kathy Scruggs in the film. Portrayed by Olivia Wilde, Scruggs was working for the publication during the trial. In the film, she is seen trading sexual favors for tips in relation to the Jewell case with an FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm.
Because of the “creative liberties” taken by Eastwood, the outlet is demanding that Warner Bros. Pictures issue a statement publicly confirming that it took dramatic license with the character for this movie. “We hereby demand that you immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” says the letter issued to WB.
Speaking further with Variety, Journal Constitution editor Kevin G. Riley said, “I think this letter makes it clear how seriously we take the misrepresentation of our reporters’ actions and of the actions of the newspaper during that time. We have been clear about how disturbed we are in the film’s use of a Hollywood trope about reporters…and how it misrepresents how seriously journalists concern themselves with reporting accurately and ethically.”
While this would normally be the end of the story before WB. issued a comment, things took a turn for the dramatic on Thursday. It began earlier in the day when Olivia Wilde took to Twitter to state that her opinions on Scruggs differ from those involved in making Richard Jewell. “Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy ‘traded sex for tips,'” Wilde tweeted. “Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had.” According to the Journal Constitution, Scruggs’ family asserts that neither Wilde nor the film makers contacted them to clarify any specifics of her story.
Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy â€œtraded sex for tipsâ€. Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did.
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) December 12, 2019
Not leaving well enough alone, Wilde then gave her own interpretation of the events to the public. According to her, she believes Scruggs and the FBI agent in question had a pre-existing relationship that happened before the events of the film. “I think people have a hard time accepting sexuality in female characters without allowing it to entirely define that character,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. She seems to be conflating female sexuality with the film’s inaccurate portrayal of Scruggs, both of which are different topics.
And since we live in the age of information, even that wasn’t the end of the story. Jewell screenwriter Billy Ray spoke with Deadline and railed back at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution for failing to acknowledge its own part in the Jewell media circus. “This movie is about a hero whose life was completely destroyed by myths created by the FBI and the media, specifically the AJC,” Ray said. “They editorialized wildly and printed assumptions as facts. They compared him to noted mass murderer Wayne Williams. And this was after he had saved hundreds of lives.”
According to Ray, instead of making amends for its crimes against Jewell, the publication is now launching a distraction campaign focusing on Scruggs. As Ray explains, the film isn’t about Scruggs or her struggle to obtain information, but how rushed reporting can ruin someone’s life. This is all without acknowledging the creative liberties he took with Scruggs, by the way.
For its part, Deadline did dig up parts of the deposition in the Jewell case that clear Scruggs of sexual favors. While her own words confirm she had previously been romantically linked with one of the officers at the Atlanta Police Department, there is zero evidence suggesting she turned tricks for privileged information. Regardless of what Ray is saying, he fabricated that part of the story to perpetuate a Hollywood trope.
Whatever the specifics are, this entire debacle is insane. We’ve now gone into “he said, she said” territory and it’s all over a problematic movie. The story of Jewell is important in the digital age for its focus on misinformation campaigns. It’s easy to believe everything you read on the internet without checking the facts, something that has created the whole “Twitter Cancel Culture” nonsense (which culminated in James Gunn being fired by Disney last year before he was rehired this year). We need to be reminded of a time in history when access to information wasn’t so readily available to us.
The trouble, though, comes from the ultimate message of the movie. You could boil down Richard Jewell’s theme as “the media lies,” but yet the movie is lying to you as well. That’s incredibly hypocritical. Trailers may paint a picture of the film being self-aware, but clearly the way in which its message was delivered is causing conflict for some.
Normally when Clint Eastwood directs a film, it’s some Oscar-bait nonsense that people forget about once the awards season is over. The man has certainly made some incredible movies (Million Dollar Baby comes to mind), but he’s been off his game for nearly a decade now. If not for the blatantly false information within, Richard Jewell would have gone unnoticed just like his other efforts from the 2010’s.
Far be it from me to tell you not to see this, but just know what you’re getting into if you chose to watch.