Oscar-tipped drama Richard Jewell, the story of the security guard falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, has come under fire for suggesting a journalist traded sex for FBI tips
Benjamin Lee – The Guardian
Clint Eastwood’s indignant, Oscar-buzzed new drama Richard Jewell tasks itself with a noble and initially justifiable aim: to tell the truth about a man whose name has been unfairly slandered. It’s written, quite literally, on the poster with the words “true” and “truth” promising, at long last, facts behind the headlines that followed the tragic bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But there’s a catch.
In an attempt to clear the name of Jewell, the security guard wrongfully accused of creating and planting the pipe bomb that directly killed one person and injured 111 others, the film throws another name under the bus, that of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist who broke the story that he was under investigation. Its recent premiere at the AFI festival was accompanied by unease over a scene where Scruggs trades sex for a tip from an FBI agent, a damaging allegation that’s yet to be supported by any tangible evidence. To complicate matters further, Scruggs isn’t able to give her side of the story. She died in 2001 from an overdose of prescription drugs at the age of 42.
“I was stunned,” the AJC’s current editor-in-chief, Kevin Riley, who attended last month’s premiere, said to the Guardian. “No one has ever said Kathy did anything like that.”
Initial outrage over the scene recently gave way to the threat of legal action, with the AJC choosing to hire the high-powered Hollywood lawyer Marty Singer, a man the New York Times once referred to as the “guard dog of the stars”. He drafted a letter aimed at Warner Bros and screenwriter Billy Ray, calling out the film’s depiction of Scruggs and her colleagues as “extraordinarily reckless” and imploring the studio to add a disclaimer to the film along with a public statement. He warned that if they choose to disregard this, a lawsuit will follow.
The story of Jewell, played on-screen by the BlacKkKlansman and I, Tonya star Paul Walter Hauser, is one of undeniable frustration, of an innocent, if over-eager, law enforcement hopeful whose bravery was warped into something darker by the FBI who thrust him to the top of their list of suspects for a gruelling 88-day period. His public transformation from hero to villain serves as a cautionary tale for the authorities and the media, a call for caution in how cases of such gravity are handled.
In the film, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s painted as a sympathetic victim, a well-intentioned, if naive, patriot while the agent on his tail, played by Jon Hamm but based on an amalgamation of real-life characters, and journalist close behind, played by Olivia Wilde, are both the clear villains. In reviews of the film, Wilde’s portrayal of Scruggs has been referred to as an “aggressive, unethical” reporter possessing a “sultry greediness” who was “ruthless, manipulative” and who “all but looks at the camera and says, ‘I am the bad guy in this movie’”. It’s a raucous, vampish, overtly sexual performance that sees Scruggs complain about covering the Olympics, calling it a “fucking nightmare” while complaining that it doesn’t get her “hard” without any crime occurring.
“She was one of the better reporters I ever worked with,” her former reporting partner Ron Martz has said of Scruggs. “She was really tough and hard-nosed. When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds.”
The offending scene sees Scruggs slithering up to Hamm’s fictional FBI agent in a garishly lit bar, seeking a scoop. After being stonewalled, she claims she already knows the bureau is looking into somebody via sources. “Well Kathy, if you couldn’t fuck it out of them then what makes you think you can fuck it out of me?” he says.
She scoffs, leaning in closer to him, caressing his inner thigh. He expresses concern over the case being jeopardised by leaked information, but she tells him she would never go to print without a second verified source and that “would put us in a very different zone, as you know”.
“What kind of zone?” he asks. “We have to find out,” she replies, leaning closer. After he reveals that the FBI is looking into Jewell, she calls him a “fat fuck who lives with his mother”.
“This kind of puts a clock on things, though,” she adds. “You want to get a room or just go to my car?”
“This is happening?” he asks.
“This is happening,” she confirms.
“Well let’s get the fuck out of here, then,” he says, and the pair leave.
The following scene, the morning after, has Scruggs sauntering into the office to her colleague Martz, asking him to do “one of those better word things” that he does, rewriting her copy as “you know I kinda write like a brick”. It’s all very dramatically juicy, and firmly places Scruggs and her techniques in an easily definable amoral zone, but it’s an encounter that remains entirely unverified.
“If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be,” Martz said recently to the AJC. “It’s obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like.”
A family friend, attorney Edward Tolley, told the AJC that “if she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”
The film is based on both a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner and The Suspect, a recently released book written by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. Alexander was the US attorney for the northern district of Georgia at the time of the bombing, while Salwen was covering the event for the Wall Street Journal, and they conducted over 180 interviews for their research. The pair acted as consultants for the film, drawing on their vast knowledge of what really happened.
In the book, Scruggs is described as “a delightful throwback to the 1930s newspaper wars” who could be seen as rude, bombastic and wild but also authentic and hard-working. “Kathy never quietly entered a room; she exploded into it,” said Martz in the book. Scruggs was famed for her connections within both the Atlanta police department and the FBI. One of her tactics was using her sexuality to flirt with cops at a local bar after hours but rumours that she would sleep with sources were just that. Scruggs would wear short skirts and low-cut blouses in a male-dominated office but any reputation that arose as a result was based on a regressive assumption. Her drive was relentless and her track record impressive. Before the Olympics, she was in charge of a regular column that helped the FBI and other agencies “apprehend nearly one hundred alleged criminals”.
After the bombing, Scruggs worked tirelessly to secure a lead, eventually finding an APD source who revealed that Jewell had become the new focus, a shift based both on inevitability (even in the film, Hamm’s fed barks that “You always look at the guy who found the bomb just like you look at the guy who found the body”) and a mounting collection of concerning yet ultimately circumstantial evidence (Jewell had found himself in hot water for impersonating a police officer in the past and lost a security job for alleged threatening behaviour while he was reportedly a user of a site that featured the notorious bomb recipe-containing Anarchist Cookbook).
For “a dedicated reporter” like Scruggs, though, one source wasn’t enough, and she found another who agreed to meet her in a bar after work. While he confirmed Jewell was a suspect, he couched it by telling her she couldn’t do anything just yet as “it might ruin the investigation”. She left after 30 minutes, according to the book, returning the office frustrated, refusing to name her source and worked harder to find more confirmation. The story was then deliberated over, every word carefully picked and run past the FBI’s PR representative to ensure that printing it wouldn’t hinder the investigation.
I contacted Alexander and Salwen, who agreed to speak to me about the book. After praising Eastwood’s film over the phone, I asked them about its portrayal of Scruggs. They froze. They didn’t realise it would be a call about Kathy. They had a statement that would be coming out later that day and agreed to speak to me after it was released.
The statement refers to Scruggs as “an outstanding police reporter” who “accurately” broke the story of Jewell becoming the primary suspect. But then it continues: “Scruggs secured her Jewell scoop from a law enforcement source. We have been asked repeatedly whether we found evidence that Scruggs traded sex for the story. We did not.
“Though this exchange may be depicted differently in the movie, Richard Jewell, we urge everyone to see this excellent film which conveys the story of Jewell, the unsung hero, in a compelling, dramatic and entertaining manner.”
It confirmed what I already knew, that the allegation wasn’t taken from their exhaustive and unparalleled research, but also that they didn’t appear to have a problem with its inclusion or at least any wish to express it. Before my second call the day after, the publicist informed me that I wouldn’t be able to ask about this scene but could talk about Kathy in general. Their statement would be the final word on that matter.
On the call, they praised her as a “terrific police reporter” whose work was “extraordinarily well-sourced” and thought Wilde’s performance was “fantastic”, having met with her themselves.
“I think in general, look, the film is not a documentary,” Salwen said at one point.
He also referred to the importance of “accuracy” in reporting and called the behaviour of the media outlets who followed Scruggs’s “very well-checked” story “despicable”, with the film providing a much-needed reminder of journalistic unprofessionalism. I countered that I and many others have seen the film as painting Scruggs to be the only visible, despicable face of the media, villainising her in the process, something their book is at pains not to do.
“I’m not sure I agree necessarily with your assessment there, I think that the movie does feature other news outlets rushing to judgment,” Salwen said.
Alexander followed: “You can quibble with a scene here or there for sure but taking in broad strokes of Kathy’s life, I think she was a larger-than-life figure and the movie got that across. I spoke with my wife who thought Kathy was just great and loved her as a character in the movie.”
What the film fails to add, and what the book includes in detail, is how Scruggs’s career and health were affected in the years following. Jewell filed lawsuits against many of the publications and networks who he claimed had libelled him. Even though NBC and CNN stood by their reporting, they both settled with him out of court and the New York Post followed suit.
But the AJC refused to do the same, holding its ground and defending its reporting. Ultimately, in 2011, the Georgia court of appeals ruled for the paper “because the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published”. It was a long-fought victory but one that sadly, Scruggs wasn’t alive to see.
Throughout the legal battle that followed her story she refused to name her source and the drawn-out proceedings took their toll on her mental and physical health. “The pressure of the lawsuit never strayed far from her psyche,” Salwen and Alexander write in their book. An injury earlier in her career had led to chronic back pain and in September 2001, after a summer of isolating herself at home, she was found unconscious. The cause of death was ruled as “acute morphine toxicity” resulting from her prescription medication.
The fallout from the film, which Warners is pushing for Oscars, having secured a Golden Globe nomination for Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother, continued just days before its 13 December release.
Warners has responded to allegations of defamation by calling any lawsuit “baseless” and defending its right not to add any statement addressing the scene to the film.
“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 film-makers and cast,” the statement read. “Richard Jewell focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”
Eastwood’s response was similar. When asked this week to discuss the controversy he claimed that the AJC was “probably looking for ways to rationalise their activity” but added that he’d never discussed it with anyone from the paper.
But what Warners or Eastwood or screenwriter Ray (who “reserved comment” when I asked him to talk via email and whose next project is the small-screen adaptation of James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty) have yet to reveal is where this allegation of sexual bartering came from and why the film decides to deviate from other accounts. Warners has said that the standard disclaimer during the film’s end credits – “Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatisation” – covers any embellishment.
Wilde, whose father is a respected journalist and the current DC editor of Harper’s Magazine and whose mother is an award-winning journalist turned Democratic congresswoman, didn’t attend the AFI festival premiere for Richard Jewell and has avoided any press for the film.
Earlier this month, though, she offered up a defence of her portrayal on the red carpet for the Gotham Awards. The actor, who made her directorial debut this year with the female-fronted teen comedy Booksmart, has claimed critiquing the scene in question is actually sexist in itself.
“I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” Wilde said. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”
She also criticised people for condemning a project that allows “for a woman to be impure” without addressing the factual issues at hand. While Wilde hasn’t made mention of the film or controversy on Twitter, she liked a tweet that urged people to “get their priorities in line” and take Eastwood and Ray to task rather than her.
At the paper, emotions are understandably still running high. Editor-in-chief Riley told me he remained concerned over the film perpetuating “a false and troubling Hollywood trope” attached to female journalists.
A current reporter at the paper also shared her thoughts. “The movie version of Scruggs is crass and contemptible,” Jennifer Brett told the Guardian. “She relies on trysts with her sources for information, curses at her colleagues, breaks into someone’s car hoping for an interview and shows no empathy after the deadly bombing, praying only that the suspect will turn out to be interesting. Those who knew and worked with Scruggs bristle at that depiction, and of course she’s not here to speak for herself.”