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The Big Lie of ‘Richard Jewell’ (Column)

For a man who was so enraged at the administration of Barack Obama that he spent his 2012 Republican Convention speech lecturing an empty chair, Clint Eastwood has made a number of conventional, level-headed — one might even say liberal — political dramas. Films like “Invictus” and “J. Edgar” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” But “Richard Jewell” isn’t one of those. It’s a movie by Clint the chair ranter.

Not that it looks like one. In “Richard Jewell,” Eastwood works in his standard mode of polished no-fuss classicism, and he takes a becalmed, just-the-facts-ma’am approach to telling the story of Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), the sad-sack security guard who discovered a pipe bomb at Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and, just days after being celebrated for his heroism, became the chief suspect in the case.

If you want to know what happened in the Richard Jewell saga, you could do worse than watch “Richard Jewell.” You could also do better, since the film tells two lies. One of them is factual: the suggestion that Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter played by Olivia Wilde, slept with her source — in the film, an FBI agent named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who is actually a composite character. The sexual liaison between them is treated as her half of a quid pro quo; in return, Shaw passes on the tip that Jewell is the suspect the FBI is investigating. Scruggs writes a story saying just that, which turns Jewell (and the implication of his guilt) into a global news event.

But according to various sources, including Kevin Riley, the current editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there’s no truth to the notion that Kathy Scruggs ever slept with a source. She was, as described in a report in Vanity Fair, a hard-nosed, flamboyant fixture of the AJC newsroom who had an edgy side to her (she died, in 2001, of an overdose). But her integrity as a reporter was highly respected.

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Billy Ray, the screenwriter of “Richard Jewell,” and Warner Bros., the studio distributing it, have defended the movie by taking a page from the current political moment. They’ve doubled down on their misrepresentation, attacking their accusers without addressing, in any detail, the falsehood that they’re accused of telling. The Warner Bros. statement reads, in part: “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…The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.” Billy Ray says, “The movie isn’t about Kathy Scruggs. It’s about the heroism and hounding of Richard Jewell, and what rushed reporting can do to an innocent man. And by the way, I will stand by every word and assertion in the script.”

The controversy over the movie’s depiction of Kathy Scruggs now extends to the issue of whether Olivia Wilde, who plays her, should have agreed to take on the role in the first place. Wilde has defended her decision, writing on Twitter, “I was asked to play the supporting role of Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, bold, smart, and fearlessly undeterred by the challenge of being a female reporter in the south in the 1990s…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.”

On the level of awards-season politics, one can understand why the studio behind “Richard Jewell,” and the people who made the film, would want to deflect attention away from how Kathy Scruggs is portrayed. Yet even if you take the movie’s lie about her — as I do — to be a serious transgression, because it’s part of Eastwood’s way of spinning our attitude toward the media, what’s far more disturbing about “Richard Jewell” is the film’s larger implication: that in telling the Jewell saga, it’s laying out the hidden truth of how mainstream media and national law enforcement work in America.

For this, it couldn’t be more obvious, is why Eastwood made the film in the first place: to demonize the same forces Donald Trump is now in the business of demonizing. “Richard Jewell” is a drama that piggybacks on Trump’s demagoguery. The movie says that the mainstream media can’t be trusted, and that even the government’s top law enforcement agency will railroad you. And Jewell himself is the pudgy-soul-of-the-heartland, ordinary American white-guy yokel who gets used and abused by these corrupt institutions, with no one to look out for him. The movie treats him as a symbolic Trump supporter. Yet Eastwood, pretending to be a crusader for justice, would never come close to applying the same standard of truth and honor to the institutions that defend Donald Trump.

Let’s be clear: The Jewell case was a travesty, driven by colossal mistakes of judgment on the part of those, in law enforcement and media, who pursued the story. But let’s separate mistakes from mythology. The FBI had every right to pursue Richard Jewell as a suspect, based on the profile of the deceptive “hero-bomber” who “solves” a crime he was secretly responsible for. Just because Jewell was innocent doesn’t mean that it was wrong for him to have been a suspect. (If that were so, half of all criminal investigations would be unjust.) And though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution jumped the gun in revealing Jewell’s name, that’s something the leading voices in American journalism have acknowledged. The Jewell case changed the way that things are done.

The singularity of the case was, of course, that Richard Jewell was a lonely, ineffectual wannabe-cop Paul Blart of a guy who fit the cliché image of a homegrown terrorist bomber. And so the idea that he was guilty became a meme. That word wasn’t used in the pre-Internet world of 1996 the way it is now, but that, in essence, is what happened. And though the Journal-Constitution’s judgment was in error, the paper put a story on the map by reporting something that was, in fact, true: that the FBI had a suspect. And the rest of us — the ordinary citizens, the vast population of readers, watchers, consumers, and couch-potato speculators — did the rest. It was a perfect storm of fake news, and it is right to look back at this story and take lessons from it.

But the chief lesson of the Jewell saga should be that rumor, innuendo, and accusation without evidence are egregious — and that what matters, more than anything, is the truth. And what I’d like to ask the Clint Eastwood who makes that statement so boldly in “Richard Jewell” is: How does he feel about Trump’s daily distortions of the truth? Trump’s lies about his own misbehavior? The baseless accusations he hurls at others? Should the Atlanta Journal-Constitution be vilified for its honest mistakes in judgment during the Jewell case, and Trump — or his chief propaganda organ, Fox News — be given a free ride? Why isn’t noble, straight-as-an-oak-tree Clint Eastwood making a movie about that?

Because Eastwood, in treating what happened to Richard Jewell as a broad-brush symbol of the sins of mainstream media, is a hypocritically selective moralistic tub-thumper. There’s no denying that the FBI makes mistakes, sometimes huge ones. But Eastwood’s treatment of the Bureau is designed to feed directly into Trump’s demonization of the FBI as a Deep State conspiracy out to get him. That’s how “Richard Jewell” works as mythology. It tells one specific lie about a reporter trading sexual favors, and it uses that to tell a bigger symbolic lie: that the media and the government are in bed with each other. And that they’re too busy pandering to care about the truth. Watching “Richard Jewell,” you have to wonder: Is that really how Clint Eastwood sees the world? Or is he just projecting?

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