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No one who knew Atlanta Journal-Constitution crime reporter Kathy Scruggs would ever think she’d trade parking-lot car sex for a news tip — even if the FBI agent in question looked like Jon Hamm. But that’s what director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray allege in the new feature film Richard Jewell, opening nationwide today. What could have been a vital film exploring both the dangers and importance of the press — 23 years ago and even more importantly today — is instead a piece of conservative knee-jerk reactionism.

It’s also very well (if unimaginatively) made and well acted. Even with his worst projects (there are many), Eastwood is a consummate craftsman. If anything, that makes the film even more insidious. It’s easy to watch. By all means, watch it on a plane sometime. Award nominations are likely. But it’s a movie as sad and tainted as the life of the real Richard Jewell, who died in 2007 at age 44.

AJC newsroom in "Richard Jewell"

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Houser, right) and lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom, as depicted in the feature film “Richard Jewell” (Photo by Claire Folger)

Richard Jewell covers the half-year saga following the July 1996 night when a pipe bomb exploded in Downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Games, killing one person and injuring many more. Introduced grousing about being assigned to the oh-so-boring job of covering the park’s crowd scene, Scruggs (played as an over-the-top bitch in heels by Olivia Wilde) is soon hitting the bar to work her primary FBI source, fictional agent Tom Shaw (Hamm), about the chief suspect. Among the film’s many problems is its inconsistent mix of characters named after real-life counterparts — like Scruggs’ newsroom partner Ron Martz, who wasn’t contacted by filmmakers — with fabricated composites, like Hamm’s role.

I worked at the AJC at the same time Kathy Scruggs did. She was on the sixth floor in news, and I was on the eighth floor in features. We ran into each other. We didn’t know each other. She wouldn’t have had much interest in me, and I was sort of scared of her. Between us, she had the bigger set of cojones. Scruggs dressed flashy-trashy, her hairstyle was borderline trailer park and her overapplication of makeup verged on kabuki. It was intentional. She knew the impression she made, and she used it when she hung out at police stations and made herself one of the guys — the pretty one — as she worked leads on crime stories. She was a crazy-dedicated reporter, a hard-core journalist whose oxygen was the next byline. But she almost certainly did not screw cops for copy.

Kathy Scruggs

In real life, AJC crime reporter Kathy Scruggs was known for her journalistic drive and ability to work sources. She died at age 42 in 2001.

Richard Jewell turns her into an attractive tramp with no ethical compass and no defining characteristics besides a reckless ambition, which the movie duly punishes. It’s an amazing piece of caricature but probably not such a surprise coming from Eastwood, who isn’t exactly known for putting nuanced female characters on-screen.

Oh, but back to that bar (played by Atlanta oldies oasis Johnny’s Hideaway). After the implied sex-in-the-parking-lot interlude with Hamm, Scruggs tells her editors, John Walter (a deceased, real person) and someone called Brandon Walker (presumably a fictionalized version of editor Ron Martin), that the Feds are circling the security guard who found the backpack with the pipe bomb and probably saved a bunch of lives before the thing blew up.

That’s Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, very likable in his first leading role). We’ve already met him in flashbacks, a sometimes overzealous campus cop at Piedmont College fired for pulling over cars on a state highway near campus after he was ordered not to do so. The Feds theorized that Jewell was an attention-seeker who might have planted the bomb in order to reap heroic acclaim, and Scruggs and Martz accurately reported that part of the story.

Never mind that the facts never supported the theory. Richard Jewell is largely about the rush to judgment that followed the breaking news. Mistakes and prejudgments were subsequently made by the FBI, the AJC and countless other media outlets swarming Atlanta that summer. That story deserves to be a movie or miniseries in its own right, but Eastwood’s film narrows things down to “us-versus-them.”

The “us” is Jewell, mama Bobi (Kathy Bates), with whom he lives, and the attorney he hires almost at random, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, who, as usual, is one of the best things in the movie). Of these two central relationships, the most compelling is that of Jewell and his lawyer, who suffers in semi-silence as his client repeatedly fails to do the one thing his counsel advises: Don’t talk.

the real Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell saved hundreds of lives the night a pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park.

The “them,” of course, amassed against the Just Folks represented by Richard and Bobi, are the media and the government. In case we miss that reductive notion, at a press conference to introduce Bobi Jewell, Bryant declares, “Her son’s accusers are two of the most powerful forces in the world today: the United States government and the media.”

Boo, hiss, etc. Still, as I said, for all its face-slapping and insulting fact-fudging, Richard Jewell is often gripping. Rockwell, never predictable in his line readings from one moment to the next, is a joy to watch. And Bates, as Bobi, is basically playing Everybody’s Mama. If she doesn’t literally wring her hands, she gives the impression of doing exactly that in every scene. But, being Kathy Bates, she takes this very limited role and sells it, hard. Her emotionally fraught press conference scene is basically “best supporting actress 101.” (Earlier this week, she earned a Golden Globe nomination.)

But you know what? This movie made me feel dirty. It’s a little ironic that a film built around the idea of someone being accused of defamation works so hard to slut-shame one of the two deceased major characters (Scruggs died in 2001 at age 42) while lionizing the other one. Jewell probably would have been thrilled by the movie. Scruggs isn’t here to kick the crap out of Eastwood et al., which, God knows, she would have done.

As I mentioned earlier, I worked for the AJC for nearly 20 years. I walked away more than a decade ago when, in my opinion, it stopped being the responsible newspaper I knew. It gets no love from me. Defending the paper makes me feel very conflicted.

AJC editor Kevin Riley recently said the movie has “severely tarnished” the newspaper’s reputation. He has demanded the film include a disclaimer saying that it is fictionalized. Personally, on First Amendment level, I feel that trying to legislate against the movie is stupid. Yes, I detest parts of how Eastwood and Ray tell the story, but I defend their right to do so.

A scene from "Richard Jewell."

The lawyer, the mama and Richard Jewell are played by Sam Rockwell (from left), Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser. (Photo by Claire Folger)

(The bombing also is the subject of an evenhanded new book, The Suspect, cowritten by Kevin Salwen and former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander, who consulted on the film.)

The film ends with Jewell’s exoneration, and with Scruggs last glimpsed sobbing with remorse at Bobi’s press conference. Oh, please . . .  so insulting on so many levels. Maybe it’s a blessing that the movie doesn’t shed any light on Scruggs’ post-Olympics life; she died as wrecked in her own way by the bombing aftermath as Jewell was. Giving her story as much fairness and breadth as Jewell’s would have made a much more interesting and truer film. But that’s not something you can expect from the man who hectored an empty chair at a political convention.

Here is the movie I wish I had seen — the tale of two people, Richard Jewell and Kathy Scruggs, who, despite their considerable flaws, performed their jobs as well and as earnestly as they possibly could. Their paths crossed. Mistakes were made. Time moved on. Both are gone now. This movie memorializes one and slanders the other. That’s a shame, not just for Scruggs and her family but for anyone who sees Richard Jewell.

 

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