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Eastwood casts media and FBI as villains in Richard Jewell


Richard Jewell seems to take some historical liberties with Olivia Wilde’s character.

For those who have forgotten or aren't old enough to have known, Richard Jewell was a security guard at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park in 1996 when a backpack loaded with pipe bombs detonated. One person was killed, another died from a heart attack, some 100 were injured, and more might have had Jewell not reported the suspicious bag beforehand, giving police at least some time to evacuate the area.

Not long after Jewell was hailed as a hero, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs reported that Jewell was the FBI's only suspect. For weeks, Jewell was virtually besieged in the apartment he shared with his mother, until his friend and attorney, Watson Bryant, finally got the FBI to admit that they had no evidence incriminating Jewell and were relying solely on a psychological profile that he seemed to fit. In 2003, the FBI apprehended Eric Robert Rudolph, who confessed to the bombing and to other crimes.

Director Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell is a distilled account of the events, starring Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as Bryant, Olivia Wilde as Scruggs, Kathy Bates as Jewell's mother, and Jon Hamm as a fictional amalgam of FBI agents.

Making movies about real people and events is problematic at best, and I've many times made my feelings clear about it, but I'll do so again for the benefit of first-time readers: I'll put up with tiny detours from veracity if the net result preserves the essential truth(s) of the story.

The example I like to give is Oscar-winner George C. Scott's opening monologue as the title character in 1970's Patton. Yes, General Patton really said all those things, but not all at one time in the same speech. The portrayal of the speech was inaccurate, but plausibly summed up the man's personality as well as the popular perception of him by the general public.

This isn't Eastwood's first time directing a movie based on true events involving real people, with films such as J. Edgar, American Sniper and Sully in his oeuvre. It may, however, be his first time crossing that boundary between the "tweaking" of history for chronological economy and outright fabrication that proffers a completely distorted version of events.

A scene following the meticulous recreation of the Centennial Park bombing depicts reporter Scruggs about to trade sex to Hamm's character in exchange for a tip on the identity of the FBI suspect, with some dialogue hinting that it's her normal practice.

There seems to be nothing in the historical record indicating or even hinting that such an event ever happened, one that paints both Scruggs and Hamm's fictional FBI agent in the worst possible light. Indeed, the AJC sent a letter last week to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray and reporter Marie Brenner (author of the Vanity Fair story on which Richard Jewell is based), calling the film’s portrayal of Scruggs “false and malicious.”

Moreover, while Hauser plays Jewell as a heroic victim of the system, Eastwood appears to have instructed Wilde to play Scruggs as a vicious harpie.

It's for this reason that, unlike virtually every other Eastwood film I've seen, I can't unequivocally recommend Richard Jewell. The director’s purpose seems more like political advocacy — the press is bad, law enforcement worse — than a dispassionate consideration of the events and their aftermath.

In the film's finale, where these docudramas typically fill us in on what happened to the dramatis personae, he doesn't even bother to tell us Scruggs' fate. (She died at a young age in 2001.) Ironic that Eastwood has done to her what Richard Jewell and his lawyer asserted was done to Jewell by her and the FBI: a condemnation that has no evidence behind it.

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