MovieMonday: Richard Jewell

This is not going to be a review of a movie, but here’s a recap of the plot:

Richard Jewell (played very well by Paul Walter Hauser) is a security guard in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, a concert venue, during the city’s hosting of the 1996 Olympics. He observes a backpack abandoned under a park bench, investigates and sees what look like bombs and sounds the alarm. When the bombs explode, one woman is killed, a man running to the scene has a fatal heart attack and about a hundred people are injured. Without Jewell’s action, many others would have died and been hurt.

Jewell initially is heralded as a hero but then becomes the lead suspect in an FBI investigation because he “fits the profile” of a lone wolf bomber. True, he is eager to be a police officer, and is a “wannabe” who spends hours poring over criminal procedure manuals. He is pudgy and naive and has been excessively officious in security guard jobs.

But being a person who “fits a profile” is not evidence. In this story, the lead FBI man at Centennial Park, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is upset that the bombing happened on his watch and is very motivated to find the bomber. Per the movie, he leaks to a local newspaper reporter that Richard Jewell is the lead suspect. She files the story, which is picked up, immediately and internationally, by the many news organizations who have teams in Atlanta to cover the Olympic Games.

From then on, Jewell and his mother are staked out at their home by teams of journalists and cops. Their belongings — Tupperware, vacuum cleaner, underwear and so on — are collected and taken to a lab. A member of the Olympic security team visits the apartment for a home-made dinner and wears a hidden wire to record the conversation. Finally a lawyer/friend named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) convinces Jewell to stop identifying with the lawmen who are determined to charge him with capital murder.

After 88 days, the ordeal ends because there is no evidence against Jewell and one matter of timing that suggests strongly that he is innocent.

This story deserves telling if only because the subsequent apologies from the press — none came from the FBI, apparently — were so much quieter than the reports of possible charges that made him a public enemy and a figure of ridicule.

The movie is well made, nicely paced (if long, as usual now) and interesting to watch.

 
The Problem

Richard Jewell seems to be becoming yet another Rorschach Test for political tribes in this country. Since it is a Clint Eastwood production and Eastwood is some kind of traditional conservative — possibly even a Trump supporter — it seems to be attracting a certain kind of audience. When I saw it, I moved seats two times in the theater because people in my rows kept talking back at Jewell’s accusers on the screen.

My guess is that when Bombshell, a retelling of the story of Fox News harasser Roger Ailes and his blonde victims, goes wide, Team Blue types will attend to watch their own views gratified.

It’s interesting that entertainment and, worse, news media, have adopted political brands so as to gather like-minded consumers unto themselves. If there was a day when people could tolerate information not refracted through their preferred filters, that seems to be over now.

That said, let’s examine some of the complaints about this film that are threatening to overshadow its story.

Kathy Scruggs

Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, the actual police reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who broke the Jewell story. In the movie, she meets FBI agent Shaw in a bar and, after she runs her hand up his thigh and suggests they have sex, he tells her that Jewell is the person of interest. Then she tells him she will confirm what he said with a second source — a common requirement with controversial stories but not seen here — and then she convinces her skeptical editor to run with the story because “everybody in town” already knows that that Jewell is the suspect. Hmm.

People are furious about the sex-for-scoops angle because Scruggs is now dead and there is no proof that such happened. (This is a pretty hackneyed plot point in mostly male-casted movies to advance information that moves plots forward and allows the introduction of sexy female characters.) The Atlanta paper, which learned the script included this unproven point, seems to have forced an acknowledgement in the film’s credits that not every single action in the largely true movie may have happened as seen on the screen.

I would add two points here:

— The AJC’s recent article about Scruggs, full of outrage at her treatment in the film, describes a hard-drinking, tough-as-nails reporter who was very competitive about getting the story. It quotes her brother saying this:

“The world needs to know she was as good a journalist as the world has ever seen. Whenever something would happen, the police would call Kathy. They always trusted her to get the scoop because they knew it would be handled right. She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” The brother also said Scruggs took various medications for physical and mental reasons, sometimes with bad interactions.

Also from the article: “’Law enforcement loved her, just loved her,’” said co-author Kent Alexander, a former federal prosecutor. The book (The Suspect) does note the time police responded at 3 a.m. when Scruggs refused to get out of a taxi outside a Buckhead hotel. She was drunk, naked and sitting in the driver’s seat.”

Reporters on the police beat who are loved by the police aren’t necessarily the best reporters because they can get too close to their sources and favor the police. It’s easy to see how such situations can develop because those reporters typically have their desks in cop shops and spend a lot of time with the boys in blue, but it’s a real hazard. And, if those reporters aren’t nice, the police avoid dealing with them.

It is unfair to use any of the above to justify the idea that Scruggs had a sexual relationship with a source, but it seems possible that some of the mythology about her may have become exaggerated over the years.

I worked with a couple of those brassy, brave, hard-drinking female reporters, and they were not quite as they wanted to be seen. The tough exterior was about as thick as an eggshell; underneath there was a vulnerable, often troubled person.

— It may be that Eastwood and his screenwriter included this characterization as a poke at the New York Times, which hired a female reporter in 2017 after she admitted to having a three-year affair with a Senate staff member whose work was relevant to her beat.

There were denials that the reporter had received leaks from her lover, but even that would have been irrelevant until very recent times. Until 2017 I never heard of a journalist who had a sexual relationship with a source. Such a person would have been fired and — since journalists can’t keep secrets — never held a news job again.

 
That FBI Guy

If this movie plays fast and loose with a real character’s story, it goes way too easy on her FBI source.

According to the book mentioned earlier, an actual FBI official named Don Johnson almost certainly told Kathy Scruggs that Jewell was the prime suspect in the bombing, and the leak was relayed over drinks in a bar.

So why is Don Hamm playing an FBI agent named named “Tom Shaw,” and not “Don Johnson?”

And, when you think about it, which is worse — a government agent exposing a suspect who has not been charged or even investigated, or a reporter who learns the suspect’s name and runs with it?
Notes

Like Jewell, who died at 45, and Scruggs, who died at 44, Don Johnson also died early. It seems fair to guess that the stress of being accused was hard on Jewell’s health, and it is known that Scruggs was tormented by her role in promoting the false accusation, even if she believed it at the time of publication.

The one who is left alive is Boby Jewell, Richard’s mother. It’s a hard thing to outlive a child.

—–

The actual bomber at the Olympics in Atlanta was Eric Rudolph. In the two years between that event and when he was identified, he built and detonated bombs at two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar. He then hid in the Appalachian forest for five years before he was caught scavenging in a dumpster.
He acknowledged his actions in exchange for two life sentences with no hope of parole.

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