In Clint Eastwood’s film “Richard Jewell,” those distortions join the sustained and alarming assault on the credibility of the nation’s news organizations.
A ludicrous and short scene in the film sets the table: We’re at Jewell’s apartment, where the hero-turned-suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing lives with his mother. The media swarms outside.
As Jewell’s lawyer escapes in his car, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pops up in the back seat to demand an interview. The lawyer refuses and insists she get out.
That never happened. And serious journalists, which AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs certainly was, don’t operate that way.
It’s just one of the film’s many phony cheap shots at journalists. But it’s not close to the worst. The film reinforces misinformed beliefs about professional reporting with a series of situations that portray journalists as untrustworthy and unprincipled.
Eastwood succumbs to a false and sexist Hollywood trope for his biggest roundhouse aimed at the media: Scruggs, who broke the story that law enforcement considered Jewell the leading suspect, gets the story by promising sex to an FBI agent.
Again, it’s made-up.
The FBI character has a made-up name. The character based on Kathy Scruggs is named Kathy Scruggs. She died in 2001 and can’t defend herself.
The AJC and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, asked Eastwood and Warner Bros. for a public acknowledgment of the made-up scenes and a prominent disclaimer in the film. The studio responded by criticizing us for criticizing the film.
Audiences who come to films “based on a true story” rely on the moviemakers to get the important things right. Everyone understands that these films are not documentaries. But we expect that what we see so vividly on the screen honors the truth.
Understanding what really happened has become more urgent, because when Eastwood maliciously uses a sexual stereotype to attack the media, it’s difficult to avoid parallels with our public life.
A bit about the real story, and the tragedy that befell Jewell:
On the evening of July 26, 1996, thousands of people were in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park for a concert. Sometime after midnight, Jewell discovered a U.S. military field pack that contained three pipe bombs.
He alerted law enforcement, and he, along with others, began clearing the area. Before they could, the device exploded. It killed one person and injured 111 others.
Jewell saved lives. CNN and NBC’s “Today” put him on the air, and he became an overnight celebrity.
But then law enforcement began focusing on him as the possible bomber.
The AJC was the first to report the FBI’s focus on Jewell in Scruggs’s July 30 story, “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.”
Though the article was accurate — Jewell was indeed the top suspect — the FBI was wrong.
Our initial report led to a three-month period during which Jewell suffered under relentless media coverage, with even late-night talk-show hosts joining in.
The media, and the AJC in this case, aren’t immune from scrutiny. We have accepted criticism for the way we attributed our story’s information to confidential sources.
Jewell’s story is important to understand and a worthy subject for a feature film. It’s a compelling tale that doesn’t need lazy stereotypes villainizing the media.
In the film, the media is falsely portrayed as allied with the FBI to railroad Jewell, a narrative that ignores reporting that probed weaknesses in the FBI’s case.
Months before the FBI finally backed off its hunch about Jewell, the AJC reported on its front page that the scenario was impossible. A 911 call made from a pay phone by the bomber 30 minutes before the explosion could not have been made by Jewell; an AJC reporter simply paced off the time it took to walk from the pay phone to Jewell’s position when he found the bomb.
In Eastwood’s “true story,” Jewell’s lawyer makes that walk.
That bit of imaginary script might have made for a better drama, but the important, and accurate, story is that we report what police do — whom they’ve detained, charged or shot — subjecting law enforcement to public scrutiny. We question the government’s pursuit of suspects and investigative techniques.
Every film has its heroes and villains, but Hollywood must acknowledge that an audience will likely accept as true what it sees memorably portrayed on the screen. People trust that “based on a true story” means that essential moments are true. Eastwood has let them down.