Eric Robert Rudolph bombed Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on July 27, 1996, during the Summer Olympics. For a few days, security guard Richard Jewell was celebrated as a hero for discovering the device and herding people away from it. He then became the 114th victim of the bombing when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reported that the FBI considered him their prime suspect. Richard Jewell, the latest film from Clint Eastwood, takes us into the man’s world as public enemy #1.
Richard Jewell is played masterfully by Paul Walter Hauser, and his performance is not the only one that shines. Kathy Bates shows why she’s an American drama treasure as Jewell’s mother, and John Hamm and Sam Rockwell deliver convincing performances that don’t get in the way of the storytelling. Rockwell plays Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant, and Hamm portrays FBI agent and villain Tom. Nina Arianda shines as Bryant’s assistant, Nadya. Kathy Scruggs, the AJC reporter who broke the story about the FBI targeting of Jewell, is played by Olivia Wilde.
On the matter of Kathy Scruggs
Ms. Scruggs has the tough job of representing the “media” in the story, and it’s clear the media is a villain. There was a tempest over the movie’s storyline, which had Scruggs trade sex for a scoop from an FBI agent (Shaw). One hopes somewhere in the hereafter Mr. Jewell, who tragically died at 44 in 2007, could read the letter Hollywood hitman lawyer Marty Singer penned to Eastwood on behalf of the powers that be at AJC. There was much ink spilled over the truth that no sex-for-story facts could be proven and how it’s too horrible for celluloid. The protestations seem more like something that might be issued by a Baptist congregation or temperance society, not a big-city news organization.
“She was blonde and wore mini-skirts and gaudy stockings. She smoked. She drank. She cursed. She flaunted her sexuality. She dated Lewis Grizzard. She dated an editor who allegedly beat her with a telephone. She dated cops, including one who was accused of stealing money from the pockets of the dead.”
That depiction of Scruggs is not from Eastwood, who has evinced contempt for her, but from her former colleague, Doug Monroe, writing a fond “Requiem” in memoriam for the now deceased Scruggs. Did she sleep with a source for a scoop? Who knows? But to suggest she did is far from scandalous given what we know about her. Ms. Wilde’s portrayal left me disliking Ms. Scruggs, whose passion for a lead is shown to eclipse all measure of her. The depictions of Scruggs by those who worked with her present a far fuller profile with much to like. Kathy Scruggs was right; the FBI did suspect Jewell. They should not have leaked his name, and she was not wrong to report it. She kept her sources confidential and wanted the paper to fight Jewell’s lawsuits against it. Ms. Scruggs died in 2001, days before her 44th birthday, from a drug overdose. Mr. Monroe said, “I think the Jewell case killed Kathy Scruggs. Certainly, the stress that plagued her in the aftermath of the story contributed to the health problems that led to her unspeakably, sad death.”
More clearly villainous is the FBI, who both leaked the identity of Jewell and then stomped on his civil rights during the 88 days between the story breaking and a hand-delivered Department of Justice letter announcing Jewell was not a suspect. In one particularly troubling event depicted in the film as it happened in real life, the FBI concocts a scheme to get Jewell to renounce his Fifth Amendment rights. David “Woody” Johnson was the FBI Special Agent in charge of the Atlanta office and headed the investigation.
The ruse involved convincing Jewell, an aspiring police officer, that they wish him to help them make a training film. As part of the “acting”, he would sign a waiver of his rights. If that sounds like breathtaking contempt for the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the accused, we’re on the same page. Mr. Johnson was given a letter of reprimand for his actions. The discipline seems to have failed to convey to the agent any lesson. Well, at least the correct lesson for our free society. In a 2013 video for The New York Times, Johnson declares:
“His attorney did not want to cooperate at all with us. It hurt our ability to resolve Richard Jewell in a timely manner. It made him a victim, it didn’t make us look very good either.”
So the attorney protecting the innocent man is the guilty party, not the FBI, who instead of using the powers of unlimited resources to learn the facts and used them to try and trick a man into incriminating himself? Perhaps little to no oversight combined with less than a slap on the wrist for such malfeasance has led to where things stand now, where agents offer lies and ginned up emails for FISA court warrants?
There are so many side trails worth going down with this story, including the litigation Jewell pursued in the ensuing years, as well as the after-effects on the short lives of Jewell and Scruggs. If the film missteps by focusing on the 88 days Jewell was hunted, it leaves too much unanswered and unexplored. As a moment in time, however, it is a piece worth watching.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.