The filmmakers behind the Oscar hopeful Richard Jewell, based on the real-life story of a security guard wrongly accused of bombing Centennial Olympic Park during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, are on the defensive after being accused of inaccurately portraying the late journalist who covered the event.
The newly released movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, explores how the FBI erroneously considered Richard Jewell — initially considered a hero for finding the suspicious backpack and telling authorities about it — as a suspect in the case.
Richard Jewell stars Paul Walter Hauser in the titular role, Sam Rockwell as his lawyer, Kathy Bates as his mother and Jon Hamm as an FBI agent. But it’s the depiction of a print reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kathy Scruggs, that’s facing significant backlash.
“When I finally saw [the film], I just thought, ‘Wow, they really did that to someone who is dead and can’t even defend herself,'” said Kevin Riley, editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Scruggs, who died in 2001 at the age of 42, was the first to break the story about the FBI investigation surrounding Jewell. In the film, she gets the information after offering to have sex with FBI agent Tom Shaw, played by Hamm.
Riley calls the characterization “appalling,” saying it’s “not true” and “never happened.”
The scene in question
In the controversial scene, which takes place at night in a bar over drinks, Scruggs tells Shaw she has other sources in the FBI who told her someone is under investigation. But she needs a name.
“Kathy, you couldn’t f— it out of them,” Shaw says. “What makes you think you could f— it out of me?”
You wanna get a room or just go to my car?
– Kathy Scruggs’s character, played by Olivia Wilde, says in the film after getting a scoop
The agent eventually gives up the name of Richard Jewell, at which point Scruggs says: “You wanna get a room or just go to my car?”
Hamm’s character responds: “This is happening?”
“This is happening,” says Scruggs.
Kelly McBride, senior vice-president of the non-profit journalism research organization The Poynter Institute, says the scene is “crass” and “inaccurate.”
“We know from everybody who knew her, including people who wrote books about her, that that is a made-up fact,” said McBride.
Olivia Wilde defends role
Scruggs is played by actress Olivia Wilde, who said she “cannot even contemplate the amount of sexism” the journalist must have faced “in the way of duty.”
“I do not believe Kathy ‘traded sex for tips,'” Wilde said in a statement thread posted on Twitter Thursday. “Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had.”
The perspective of the fictional dramatization of the story, as I understood it, was that Kathy, and the FBI agent who leaked false information to her, were in a pre-existing romantic relationship, not a transactional exchange of sex for information.
Wilde was previously called out by close friends and family of Scruggs, who say that none of them were contacted, despite the actress’s claims she had reached out to people who knew the journalist well before shooting the film.
“I am Kathy Scruggs’s brother and only remaining member of our immediate family,” Lewis Scruggs Jr. told AJC in a Nov. 26 article about the film. “I find it interesting that during Ms. Wilde’s extensive research of Kathy, she did not bother to contact me or any of Kathy’s very close friends.”
Hamm, whose own FBI character is not based on a real person, defended the portrayal of Scruggs in a recent interview: “There were certainly suggestions of impropriety with her character but there are also some suggestions of impropriety with the character that I play.”
Film otherwise sticks to facts
The film is based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article and also uses as source material the well-researched book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. Hamm says the authors were also on set as consultants.
However, the inference in the movie about the way Scruggs got her information was not in the book nor the Vanity Fair article and appears to have been embellished by filmmakers.
As a result, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has hired a lawyer and sent a letter to Warner Bros., Eastwood and Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Ray imploring them to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie.
Warner Bros. stands its ground
“We hereby demand that you immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events that were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic licence and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” the letter says.
Riley says he felt “it was crucially important that we stand up for our reporter and our journalism.”
Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, is defending its product.
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.
– statement from Warner Bros.
“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,” Warner Bros. said in a statement. “Richard Jewell focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”
Eastwood, 89, has won multiple Academy Awards, including best director for the 2004 sports drama Million Dollar Baby (2004) and the 1992 Western Unforgiven. But McBride says the depiction — which was largely unnecessary when there are so many other ways the reporter could have gotten the scoop — clings to stereotypes and shows a lack of awareness, particularly in the #MeToo era.
Female journalists portrayed as ‘prostitutes,’ expert says
“In addition to this misogynistic view of professional women that is perpetuated by Hollywood, I think that the other thing that is at play here is the fact that the work of journalism is very important and exciting, but the actual work that journalists do is actually not very interesting when it comes to a dramatic film,” said McBride.
“As a result, directors tend to embellish that. And directors with a lack of imagination tend to make female journalists prostitutes.”
The Netflix series House of Cards and the 2005 film Thank You For Not Smoking are a few examples in which reporter characters have seduced their sources in exchange for information.
Hollywood has faced criticism for decades over its often hyper-sexualized portrayals of women and negative portrayals of professional women. But strides in recent years appeared to moving the dial.
Eastwood, a high-profile supporter of Donald Trump as well as the U.S. National Rifle Association, said he believes the media was partly to blame in Jewell’s unjust takedown.
I think Clint Eastwood is showing his age, frankly.
– Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute
“The press and the FBI were somewhat complacent in some of the things they did,” Eastwood said in an interview Dec. 10 on The Ellen Show about the film. “And so it was the ultimate American tragedy in my mind.”
Jewell, who was crucified by the press but was eventually able to clear his name after the three-month ordeal, died in 2007 at the age of 44 due to diabetes. He was dogged by the accusations for much of his life. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among the media outlets sued in the aftermath, but the case was dismissed in 2011.
Prior to the backlash, Richard Jewell was among the films considered an early contender for Academy Award nominations. The film received one Golden Globe nomination for Bates’s supporting role.
Wilde, who says her parents were journalists, stopped short of making any apologies for the role. She instead tweeted she “did not have a say in how the film was ultimately crafted” and that as an actor, “it’s more complicated.”
But some argue it’s the filmmakers who should be shouldering more of the responsibility for perpetuating an antiquated cliché.
“I think Clint Eastwood is showing his age, frankly,” said McBride.