American security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.
In the early-morning hours of July 27, 1996, I sat on the eighth floor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution building, just walking distance from Centennial Olympic Park. The sports section had largely been put to bed, except for what we called the street edition, which included the scores from the West Coast—games that concluded too late to meet the deadline for papers that were delivered to local subscribers.
From that short distance, the explosion sounded like a garbage truck dropping a large dumpster. I thought that’s exactly what it was, until minutes later, I peered down onto Marietta Street below, where what seemed like the entire Atlanta Police Department and every ambulance in sight was tearing down Marietta Street, blue lights and red lights flashing everywhere. A huge story was developing: Someone had set off a pipe bomb, killing one person, while another died of a heart attack while racing to film the aftermath.
What happened in the following weeks was unfortunate: The guy that found the bomb and ushered people to safety went from hero to FBI chief suspect seemingly overnight. It would be months before the chief suspect, Richard Jewell, would be cleared of those suspicions, and then more years before Clint Eastwood would cynically latch onto the tale to further his grievances against the FBI and the media.
If Eastwood is taking the media to task for rushing to judgment and smearing Jewell (played in hugely sympathetic lovable-lug fashion by Paul Walter Hauser), what then to say of what he has taken his sweet time to do 23 years after the fact? He is guilty of the very thing for which he excoriates the media: He smears my colleague, the late Kathy Scruggs, one of the finest and most dogged reporters the Journal-Constitution ever had, by outrageously depicting her as a woman who traded sexual favors for tips. Eastwood would’ve been better off had he disappeared from public view after famously dressing down that empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
It is true that Scruggs (played here by Olivia Wilde) was one of the AJC’s all-time characters. She did wear short skirts. She did engage in baudy humor. Her personal life was turbulent. But Scruggs did not resort to the measures Eastwood implies. She was known to beat the police to crime scenes. She never wrote that Jewell was guilty of setting the bomb, only that the FBI was focusing its investigation on him. In all her writing and reporting, she never stooped to the scurrilous thing Eastwood has done—in a reckless disregard for the truth.
When Eric Robert Rudolph was ultimately found guilty of terrorism, Jewell sued media outlets, including the AJC, for defamation. Only the AJC did not settle, and the courts ultimately found in the paper’s favor for writing the truth. I’m glad Eastwood chose to lift up an underdog and try to restore him to a place of honor. I’m sad that he couldn’t do it without so clumsily pandering to the media-bashing crowd and tearing down the reputation of one who’s not here to defend herself.
The Dove Take:
There’s cussing and violence and sexual innuendo, but perhaps this movie’s greatest sin is the hypocrisy by which it purports to tell the truth by cynically casting it aside.