‘Richard Jewell,’ Skepticism, and Media Literacy

December 27, 2019

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

It’s no secret that non-police security officers get little or no respect. They’re universally mocked and ignored in malls, security checkpoints, and airports. The stereotype is the self-important, dim, chubby ones, typified by Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and—shudder—its sequel. Of course the stereotype extends to sworn officers as well, from rotund doughnut aficionado Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons to Laverne Hooks in the Police Academy franchise. They’re usually played for laughs, but there’s nothing funny about what happened to Richard Jewell.

Richard Jewell tells the story of just such a security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics celebration. He spots a suspicious bag underneath a bench and alerts authorities, helping to clear the area shortly before the bomb goes off. The unassuming Jewell (played by a perfectly-cast Paul Walter Hauser) is soon seen as a hero and asked to make the media rounds of TV talk shows and possible book deals. There’s no evidence connecting Jewell to the crime, but the FBI, without leads and under increasing public pressure to make an arrest, turns its attention to Jewell. Things take a turn when Jewell is named in the press as being the FBI’s main suspect, a tip leaked by agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) to hard-driving Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). But when he becomes the target of unrelenting attacks as an unstable and murderous “wannabe cop” he seeks out a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to defend him.

What’s the case against him? FBI “experts” assured themselves (and the public) that the bomber fit a specific profile—one that Jewell himself fit as well (a loner with delusions of grandeur and a checkered past; the fact that he was single and living with his mother didn’t help). Psychological profiling is inherently more art than science, and to the degree to which it can be called a science, it’s an inexact one. At best it can provide potentially useful (if general and somewhat obvious) guidelines for who investigators should focus on, but cannot be used to include or exclude anyone from a list of suspects.

Bob Carroll, in his Skeptics Dictionary, notes that “FBI profiles are bound to be inaccurate. I noted some of these in a newsletter five years ago. Even if the profilers got a representative sample of, say, serial rapists, they can never interview the ones they don’t catch nor the ones they catch but don’t convict. Also, it would be naive to believe that serial rapists or killers are going to be forthright and totally truthful in any interview.” For more on this see “Myth #44: Criminal Profiling is Helpful in Solving Cases,” in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein; and Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy.”

Psychologists will readily acknowledge these caveats, and their assessments are typically heavily qualified—much in the way that a good science journal report about an experiment will be candid about its limitations.

Journalists, however, are less interested in important nuances and caveats, and their readers are exponentially less so. The public wants binary certainty: Is this the bomber, or not? If not, why is the FBI investigating him, and why wouldn’t they explicitly announce that he wasn’t a suspect? Complicating matters, the public often misunderstands criminal justice issues and procedures. They widely assume, for example, that lie detectors actually detect lies (they don’t); or that an innocent person would never confess to a crime he or she didn’t really commit (they do). (In the film Jewell passes a polygraph, though little is made of it.)

When agent Shaw is confronted with evidence suggesting that Jewell does not, in fact, fit the profile and is likely innocent, instead of questioning his assumptions he doubles down, rationalizing away inconsistencies and stating that no one is going to fit the profile perfectly.

Jewell, a by-the-books type, is especially heartbroken to realize that his faith in the FBI’s integrity was sorely misplaced. All his life he’d looked up to federal law enforcement, until they turned on him. He isn’t angry or upset that he’s being investigated; he’s familiar enough with law enforcement procedures to understand that those closest to a murder victim (or a bomb) will be investigated first. But his initial openness and cooperation wanes as he sees FBI agents attempting to deceive and entrap him.

As Bryant tells Jewell, every comment he makes, no matter how innocuous or innocent, can be twisted into something nefarious that will put him in a bad light, and provide dots for others to (mis)connect. The fact that a friend as a teenager built homemade pipe bombs for throwing down gopher holes (long before he met Jewell) could be characterized as either a piece of evidence pointing to his guilt—or completely irrelevant. The fact that he has an impressive stash of weapons in his home could similarly be seen (if not by a jury, then certainly by a story-hungry news media) as being evidence of an obsession with guns—or, as he says with a shrug to Bryant, “This is Georgia.”

The film doesn’t paint the villains with too broad a brush; before an interview with the FBI Bryant reminds Jewell that the handful of agents harassing and persecuting him don’t represent the FBI in general; the entire U.S. government isn’t out to get him—no matter what it feels like. The news media is seen as a pack of vultures, camping out in front of his house, robbing him and his mother of privacy and dignity. You can probably guess what would have happened to Jewell in today’s age of internet-driven social media outrage; if not, see Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Shaw and the other FBI agents, as well as Scruggs (presumably) sincerely believed they’d named the right man—at least until a more thorough investigation reveals otherwise. The film is not anti-FBI, anti-government, nor anti-press; it is pro-due process and sympathetic to those who are denied it.

Ironically but predictably, even not talking to the police can be seen as incriminating. Those ignorant of the criminal justice system may ask, “What do you have to hide?” or even “Why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent?” These are the sorts of misguided souls who would presumably be happy to let police search their property without a warrant because, well, a person should be fine with it if they have nothing to hide.

The result is a curious and paradoxical situation in which a completely innocent person is (rightfully) afraid to speak openly and honestly. Not out of fear of self-incrimination but out of fear that those with agendas will take anything they say out of context. This is not an idle fear; it happens on a daily basis to politicians, movie stars, and anyone else in the spotlight (however tangentially and temporarily). Newspaper and gossip reporters salivate, waiting for an unguarded moment when—god forbid—someone of note express an opinion. A casual, honest, and less-than-charitable but otherwise mild remark about a film co-star can easily be twisted and turned into fodder for a Twitter war. For example Reese Witherspoon laughing and reminiscing casually in an interview that, years ago, at a dinner party Jennifer Aniston’s steak was “tasty but a bit overcooked” can easily spawn headlines such as “Reese Witherspoon Hates Jennifer Aniston’s Cooking.” A flustered Oscar winner who forgets to thank certain people (such as a mentor or spouse) can set tongues wagging about disrespect or even infidelity—which is one reason why nominees write out an acceptance speech ahead of time, even if they don’t expect to win. The fewer things you say, the fewer bits of information you provide, the less fodder you give those who would do you harm. As Richard Jewell demonstrates, this is, ironically, a system that prevents people from being totally open and forthcoming.

Eastwood’s past half-dozen or so films have been based on real events and actual historical people: American Sniper (about Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle); The 15:17 to Paris (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos, who stopped a 2014 train terrorist attack); The Mule (Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran-turned-drug mule); Jersey Boys (the musical group The Four Seasons) and J. Edgar (as in FBI director Hoover). The complex, sometimes ambiguous nature and myriad facets of heroism clearly interest Eastwood, arguably dating back over a half century to his spaghetti Westerns (and, later, Unforgiven) where he played a reluctant gunslinger.

This is not the first biographical film that Eastwood has done about a falsely accused hero. His 2016 film Sully, for example, was about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson river and saving lives. Where Jewell was lauded—and then demonized—in public, Sullenberger was a hero in public but behind closed doors was suspected of having made poor decisions. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials second-guessed his actions based, as it turned out, in part on flawed flight simulator data, and Sullenberger was eventually cleared. (In another parallel, just as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution complained about its portrayal in Richard Jewell—more on that later—the NTSB complained about its portrayal in Sully.)

Just as we have imperfect victims, we have imperfect heroes. Bryant eventually realizes that Jewell has an admittedly spotty past, including impersonating an officer and being overzealous in enforcing rules on a campus. Jewell, like many social heroes, humbly denies he’s a hero; he was just doing his job. And he is exactly correct: Jewell didn’t do anything particularly heroic. He didn’t use his body to shield anyone from the bomb; he didn’t bravely charge at an armed gunman, or risk his life rushing to pull a stranded motorist from an oncoming train (as happened recently in Utah).

He’s not a chiseled and battle-hardened Navy SEAL; he’s an ordinary guy who did what he was trained and encouraged to do in all those oft-ignored public security PSAs: he saw something, and he said something. This is not to take anything away from him but instead to note that mundane actions can be heroic. Any number of other security guards and police officers could have been the first to spot the suspicious package; he just happened to be the right guy at the right (or wrong) time. One theme of the film is rule following; Jewell saved many people by following the rules and insisting that the backpack be treated as a suspicious package instead of another false alarm. But the FBI did not follow the rules in either its pursuit of Jewell or its leaking information to a reporter.

Jewell’s life was turned upside down, and if not destroyed at least severely damaged. That didn’t end some three months later when he was finally formally cleared. The news media had spent many weeks saturating the country with his name and face, strongly suggesting—though not explicitly saying, for legal reasons—that he was a domestic terrorist bomber.

Who’s responsible for an innocent man being falsely accused, bullied, and harassed? In the real case, apparently no one: though in real life an FBI agent was briefly disciplined for misconduct in connection to the case, the agency insisted that it had done nothing wrong; after all, Jewell was a suspect and the investigation did eventually clear him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also got off scot-free, with a judge later determining (in dismissing a defamation suit filed by Jewell) that its reporting, though ultimately flawed, was “substantially true” given the information known at the time it was published. Richard Jewell is having none of it, and points fingers at misconduct in both law enforcement and news media (though the film depicts no consequences for anyone responsible).

Reel vs. Real

The film garnered some offscreen controversy when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution issued a statement complaining about the film, specifically how it and its journalism were portrayed. They and other critics complained particularly that the film unfairly maligns Scruggs, who (in real life) co-wrote the infamous AJC newspaper article that wrongly implicated Jewell in the public’s mind based on unnamed insider information. Scruggs, who isn’t alive to respond, is depicted as sleeping with FBI agent Shaw—with whom she had a previous relationship, at least according to Wilde—in return for information about Jewell.

The AJC letter to Warner Bros. threatened legal action and read in part, “Significantly, there is no claim in Ms. Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece on which the film is based that the AJC’s reporter unethically traded sex for information. It is clear that the film’s depiction of an AJC reporter trading sex for stories is a malicious fabrication contrived to sell movie tickets.” Such a depiction, the newspaper asserts, “makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned” such behavior.

The newspaper’s response was widely seen in the public (and by many journalists) as a full-throated defense of Scruggs’s depiction in the film as being baseless and a sexist trope fabricated by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray to bolster the screenplay.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes that “It’s implied that she has sex with a source in exchange for a scoop; those who knew the real-life Scruggs deny that she did any such thing. It’s an ignominious allegation, and one that Eastwood has no business making, particularly in a movie about ignominious allegations.”

Becca Andrews, assistant news editor at Mother Jones, had a similar take: “Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, a hell-on-wheels shoe-leather reporter who does not appear to have any history of, say, sleeping with sources…. Despite Scruggs’ standing as a respected reporter who, to be clear, does not seem to have screwed anyone for a scoop over the course of her career, the fictional version of her in the film follows the shopworn trope.”

It all seems pretty clear cut and outrageous: the filmmakers recklessly and falsely depicted a female reporter (based on a real person, using her real name) behaving unethically, in a way that had no basis in fact.

A Closer Look

But a closer look reveals a somewhat different situation. It is true, as the AJC letter to Warner Bros. states several times, that the film was based on Brenner’s Vanity Fair article. However the letter conspicuously fails to mention that the film was not based only on Brenner’s article: There was a second source credited in the film—one which does in fact suggest that Scruggs had (or may have had) sex with her sources.

Screenwriter Ray didn’t make that detail up; one of the sources the film credits, The Suspect, by two respected journalists, Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwan, specifically refers to Scruggs’s “’reputation’ for sleeping with sources” (though not necessarily in the Jewell case specifically) according to The New York Times. Ray fictionalized and dramatized that part of the story, in the same way that all the events and characters are fictionalized to some degree. This explains why Scruggs was depicted as she was: that’s what the source material suggested.

The defense that, well, while it may be true that she was thought by colleagues to have had affairs with some of her sources—but not necessarily in that specific case—is pretty weak. It’s not as if there was no basis whatsoever for her depiction in the film, with Eastwood and Ray carelessly and maliciously manufacturing a sexist trope out of thin air. Ironically this book—the one that refers to Scruggs’s reputation for sleeping with her sources—was described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution itself as “exhaustively researched” and “unsparing but not unfair.” It’s not clear why mentioning her reputation for sleeping with sources was “not unfair” when Alexander and Salwan did it in their (nonfiction) book about Richard Jewell, but is “false” and “extraordinarily reckless” when Ray and Eastwood did it in their (fictional) screenplay based in part on that very book.

True Stories in Fiction

The issues surrounding the portrayal of Scruggs in Richard Jewell—just like the portrayal of Jewell himself in the film—are more nuanced and complex than they first appear. Eastwood and Ray were not accused of tarnishing a dead reporter’s image by including a true-but-unseemly aspect of her real life in her fictional depiction. Nor were they accused of failing to confirm that information contained in one of their sources. Instead they were accused of completely fabricating that aspect of Scruggs’s life to sensationalize their film—which is demonstrably not true.

More fundamentally, complaints that the film isn’t the “real story” miss the point. It is not—and was never claimed to be—the “real story.” The film is not a documentary, it’s a scripted fictional narrative film (as it says on posters) “based on the true story.” (The full statement that appears in the film reads, “The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”) That is, the film is based on some things that actually happened; that doesn’t mean that everything that really happened is in the film, and it doesn’t mean that everything in the film really happened. It means exactly what it says: the movie is “based on actual historical events.” Complaints about historical inaccuracy are of course very common in movies about real-life people and events.

Similar complaints were raised about Eastwood’s drama American Sniper about the film’s historical accuracy as it relates to the true story of the real-life Chris Kyle; these pedantic protests rather miss the point. Much of the “controversy” over whether it’s a 100% historically accurate account of Kyle’s life is a manufactured controversy sown of a misunderstanding, a straw man argument challenge to a strict historicity no one claimed.

In an interview with The New York Times, “Kelly McBride, a onetime police reporter who is the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, said the portrayal of Ms. Scruggs did not reflect reality” (emphasis added). It’s not clear why McBride or anyone else would believe or assume that a scripted film would “reflect reality.” There is of course no reason why fictional entertainment should necessarily accurately reflect real life–in dialogue, plot, or in any other way. Television and film are escapist entertainment, and the vast majority of characters in scripted shows and films lead far more interesting, dramatic, and glamorous lives than the audiences who watch them. While fictional cops on television shows regularly engage in gunfire and shootouts, in reality over 90% of police officers in the United States never fire their weapons at another person during the course of their career. TV doctors seem to leap from one dramatic, life-saving situation to another, while most real doctors spend their careers diagnosing the flu and filling out paperwork. I wrote about this a few years ago.

Richard Jewell is one of many “based on a true story” films currently out, including Bombshell, Ford v. Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Seberg, Dark Waters, Midway, Honey Boy, Harriet, and others. Every one of these has scenes, dialogue, and events that never really happened, and characters that either never existed or existed but never did some of the specific things they’re depicted as having done on the screen.

It’s understandable for audiences to wonder what parts of the film are historically accurate and which parts aren’t, but making that distinction and parsing out exactly which characters are real and which are made up, and which incidents really happened and precisely when and how, is not the responsibility of the film or the filmmakers. The source material is clearly and fully credited and so anyone can easily see for themselves what the true story is. There are many books (such as Based on a True Story—But With More Car Chases: Fact and Fiction in 100 Favorite Movies, by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen) and websites devoted specifically to parsing out what’s fact and what’s fiction in movies. There are also a handful of online articles comparing the true story of Richard Jewell with the fictional one.

There’s no deception going on, no effort to “trick” audiences into mistaking the film for a documentary. It is a scripted drama, with events carefully chosen for dramatic effect and dialogue written by a screenwriter and performed by actors. It’s similar in some ways to the complaint that a film adaptation of a book doesn’t follow the same story. That’s because books and films are very different media that have very different storytelling structures and demands. It’s not that one is “right” and the other is “wrong;” they’re different ways of telling roughly the same story.

Similarly, to ask “how accurate” a film is doesn’t make sense. A fictional film is not judged based on how “accurate” it is (whatever that would mean) but instead how well the story is told. Screenwriters taking dramatic license with bits and pieces of something that happened in real life in order to tell an effective story is their job. Writers can add characters, combine several real-life people into a single character, play with the chronology of events, and so on.

Ray certainly could—and arguably should—have changed the name of the character, but since in real life it was Scruggs specifically who broke the news about Jewell, and it was Scruggs specifically who in real life was rumored to have been romantically involved with sources, the decision not to do so is understandable. It’s likely, of course, that complaints would still have arisen even if her name had been changed, since Scruggs’s name is so closely connected to the real story.

The question of fictional representation is a valid and thorny one. Films and screenplays based (however loosely) on real events and people are, by definition, fictionalized and dramatized (this seems obvious, but may be more clear to me, as I have attended several screenwriting workshops taught by Hollywood screenwriters). Plots need conflict, and in stories based on things that actually happened, there will be heroes (who really existed in some form) and there will be villains (who also really existed in some form). The villains in any story will, by definition—and rightly or wrongly—typically not be happy with their depiction; villains are heroes in their own story.

The question is instead what obligations a screenwriter has to the real-life people cast in that villain role—keeping in mind of course that interesting fictional characters are a blend of hero and villain, good and bad. Heroes will have flaws and villains will have positive attributes, and may even turn out to be heroes in some cases.

You can argue that if Ray was going to suggest that Scruggs’s character slept with an FBI agent (as The Suspect suggested), that he should have confirmed it. But screenwriters, like non-fiction writers, typically don’t fact-check the sources of their sources. In other words they assume that the information in a seemingly reputable source (such as a Vanity Fair article or a well-reviewed book by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a former Wall Street Journal columnist, for example), is accurate as written. If they report that Scruggs had a reputation for sleeping with sources, or hid in the back of Jewell’s lawyer’s car hoping for an interview, or met with FBI agents in a bar, or any number of other things, then the screenwriter believing that she did so—or may have done so—is not unreasonable nor malicious.

In the end, the dispute revolves around a minor plot point in a single scene, and the sexual quid pro quo is implied, not explicit. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Scruggs was portrayed fairly in the film (and if not, where the blame lies) as well as the ethical limits of dramatic license in portraying real historical events and figures in fictional films, but the question here is more complex than has been portrayed—about, ironically, a film with themes of rushing to judgment and binary thinking—and should not detract from what is overall a very good film.

For those interested in the real, true story of how Richard Jewell was railroaded, bullied, and misjudged—instead of the obviously fictionalized version portrayed in the film—people can consult Marie Brenner’s book Richard Jewell: And Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, based on her 1997 Vanity Fair article; and The Suspect, mentioned above.

The Social Threat of Richard Jewell

In addition to the potential harm to Scruggs’s memory, several critics have expressed concern about presumed social consequences of the film, suggesting, for example that Richard Jewell could potentially change the way Americans think about journalism (and female journalists in particular), as well as undermine public confidence in investigative institutions such as the FBI.

There is of course a long history of fears about the consequences of fictional entertainment on society. I’ve previously written about many examples, such as the concern that the 50 Shades of Grey book and film franchise would lead to harmful real-world effects, and that the horror film Orphan, about a murderous dwarf posing as a young girl, would literally lead to a decline in international adoptions. Do heavy metal music, role-playing games, and “occult” Halloween costumes lead to Satanism and drug use? Does exposure to pornography lead to increased sexual assault? Does seeing Richard Jewell decrease trust in journalism and the FBI? All these are (or were) plausible claims to many.

The public need not turn to a fictional film—depicting events that happened nearly 25 years ago—to find reasons to be concerned with the conduct of (today’s) Federal Bureau of Investigations. Earlier this month, a story on the front page of The New York Times reported that “The Justice Department’s inspector general… painted a bleak portrait of the F.B.I. as a dysfunctional agency that severely mishandled its surveillance powers in the Russia investigation, but told lawmakers he had no evidence that the mistakes were intentional or undertaken out of political bias rather than ‘gross incompetence and negligence.’”

No one would suggest that fictional entertainment have no effect at all on society, of course—there are clear examples of copycat acts, for example—and the topic of media effects is far beyond the scope here. I’ll just note that the claim that Richard Jewell (or any other film) affects public opinions about its subjects is a testable hypothesis, and could be measured using pre- and post-exposure measures such as questionnaires. This would be an interesting topic to explore, and of course it’s much easier to simply assume that a film has a specific effects than to go to the considerable time, trouble, and expense of actually testing it. Who needs all the hassle of creating and implementing a scientific research design (and tackling thorny causation issues) when you can just baldly assert and assume that they do?

There are certainly valid reasons to criticize the film, including its treatment of Scruggs, the FBI, and Jewell himself (who is also not alive to comment or defend himself). Good films provoke conversation, and those conversations should be informed by facts and thoughtful analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions and unsupported assumptions. Richard Jewell is a moving, important, and powerful film about a rush to judge and an otherwise ordinary guy—flawed and imperfect, just like the rest of us—who was demonized by institutional indifference and a slew of well-meaning but self-serving people in power.