DVD Review: Richard Jewell & Book Review: The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle
By Chris Chan
When Richard Jewell dreamed of becoming a hero, he must have made his wish on a cursed monkey’s paw, because though he did save a great many lives, he became a reviled and mocked public figure after he was falsely accused of a terrible crime. Jewell, whose career goal was to become a respected law enforcement official, found and lost a handful of jobs such as working for the police and as a college security guard. By the summer of 1996, he was employed as a security guard for the Olympics in Atlanta, and one night, he discovered a backpack containing a bomb. After Jewell alerted the authorities and helped move bystanders to a safe distance, the bomb exploded, but only a couple of fatalities and a moderate number of injuries occurred, which certainly were horrible, but the carnage would have been far higher had Jewell not acted.
Initially, Jewell was deservedly lauded for his job well done, and for a short, glorious while, he was acclaimed for his heroism. But in a cruel twist of fate, stereotyping was used instead of intelligent criminal profiling, and the FBI started to wonder if Jewell actually set the bomb himself so he could save the day. An ambitious reporter picked up the story, and in a matter of hours, Jewell plummeted from celebrated figure of respect to loathed target of derision. Long before social media gained the power to destroy and humiliate, the mass media latched onto the false narrative that Jewell was the bomber, leading to a media circus that threatened to put Jewell behind bars.
Even today, years after Jewell was completely and definitively exonerated, and the real bomber identified, Jewell’s reputation still hasn’t received the full rehabilitation it deserves. That is changing, with Clint Eastwood’s 2019 movie Richard Jewell and Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen’s true crime book The Suspect telling the all-too-little-known story behind the case.
The movie Richard Jewell is remarkable for its balance and moderation. In lesser hands, the film would have approached the narrative in a heavy-handed manner, lambasting the FBI and the press for their ineptitude. Instead of approaching this miscarriage of justice with a blazing fury, Eastwood approaches the FBI’s jumping to conclusions and the media’s jumping the gun with quiet yet firm condemnation. Rather than making the movie a gigantic “J’accuse,” Eastwood restrains the emotional direction of the narrative and focuses on the emotional journeys of the human beings involved in the case.
When making a movie based on true events where the result is known, filmmakers have to be careful to craft a production that won’t bore viewers who already know how the story ends. Those familiar with the case know that Jewell was never arrested, so there’s no suspense as to whether or not he’ll be thrown in jail and facing the death penalty. Instead, Eastwood focuses on human emotion, anchored by resonating performances by the cast, most centrally Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell, playing a good-hearted, jovial man whose innate innocence and faith in the system blinds him to the fact that he is in the middle of a battle for his life. Kathy Bates is fantastic as his mother, Bobi Jewell, a woman who loves her son but who is at utter loss to understand why the news (especially her favorite anchor, Tom Brokaw), is confidently pronouncing her son a terrorist. Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant is a man on a mission, a determined advocate who is disgusted at how the authorities and media are bungling the investigation. The combination of denial, anguish, and the will to fight in self-defense form the emotional heart of the movie.
There are a lot of important themes in Richard Jewell, such as the irresponsibility of the media, corrupt and lazy practices by government investigators, and the long-term psychological toll on innocent people targeted by powerful forces. Yet these critical narratives that the viewing public really ought to be pondering have been overshadowed by about twenty seconds of the film, where it’s strongly implied that Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). the reporter who named Jewell as the prime suspect, got her scoop in exchange for sex with FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). Scruggs’ colleagues and friends have denounced this plot point, which they insist is a complete invention that slanders Scruggs. Notably, the media displayed far more outrage over the portrayal of Scruggs than they did towards their own treatment of Jewell and his mother. Shaw is a composite of multiple FBI agents, so there is little corresponding outrage on his characterization. Changing the name of the reporter character or completely deleting the two offending lines would have completely avoided the controversy, which has served to distract from the potent arguments and criticisms which make the film powerful and resonant. It’s unclear why this plot point was added, though the book The Suspect cites one instance where Scruggs used a crude term for a sexual act as a piece of journalistic slang for a glowingly positive article, and the shocked man she was speaking to mistakenly thought she was admitting to trading sexual favors for information.
In response to those critics who claimed that this depiction of Scruggs ought to disqualify Richard Jewell from awards consideration, I should point out that there are many other slanderous liberties taken with real people’s lives. First Officer William Murdoch was mutated into a killer who committed suicide in Titanic, whereas in real life he did no such thing, and instead spend his final minutes throwing floating deck chairs to passengers in the water to give them a better chance at survival before going down with the ship. By the logic used against Richard Jewell, should Titanic have all eleven of its Oscars rescinded? It’s too late for Richard Jewell to get any more major awards nominations, which reflects more negatively on those who hand out the trophies than on the film itself.2
The Suspect is one of the accounts of the case that served as source material for the screenplay of Richard Jewell. While the film provides a wonderful dramatic overview of Jewell’s story, The Suspect, being a full-length book rather than a two-hour film, provides far more information on Jewell’s early life, the complexities of the investigation, the arrest of the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, and Jewell’s life after his exoneration.
A lot of people say in Richard Jewell that the title character’s life has been ruined. Yet as The Suspect shows, Jewell actually got something of a happy ending, including vindication (albeit an under-publicized one), marriage, and a good job. He may have endured a horrible tag-teaming by the media and the FBI, but he ultimately emerged whole and triumphant, at least before his untimely death due to complication from diabetes. Less lucky were Scruggs and one of the FBI agents used to create the character of Shaw, both of whom died early deaths and whose careers and personal lives took terrible blows from their actions during the bombing investigation. Scruggs comes across as a tragic figure in The Suspect, a woman undone by unchecked ambition, whereas the FBI agent is unredeemed due to his personal actions and his refusal to admit he targeted the wrong man, even after the true bomber was apprehended. While in most cases I advise my readers to read the book before seeing the movie, in this case I think it might help for people to watch the movie first to learn the basic story, and then read The Suspect to learn the full narrative of the case.
The main criticism I have about The Suspect is that at times it’s a bit coy with its characters. Many of the figures in the book, whether they’re employees of the justice system or journalists, are people who became famous household names later. Certain scenes refer to people without using their proper names, or perhaps just their first names, and then in a big reveal, declare that this official or interviewer is actually someone everybody knows. It’s a little corny, but it’s a small quibble for a generally stellar book. I also note a couple of anachronisms, such as one person contemporaneously comparing the bombing to a scene from Saving Private Ryan, which must be a trick of memory, because Saving Private Ryan was released two years after the bombing, so the witness couldn’t possibly have thought of the Spielberg movie as it happened.
The long-overdue popular culture movement to finally give Jewell the kudos he deserves continues. The Discovery Channel anthology series Manhunt (as yet unseen by me, and not to be confused with the British series of the same name), which covered the Unabomber saga in its first season, has just released a series on the Atlanta Olympics bombing, with Cameron Britton (best known for his breakout role as serial killer Edmund Kemper on Mindhunter) as Jewell. Over twelve years after his untimely death, Jewell is finally getting some long-overdue image rehabilitation. Richard Jewell and The Suspect are terrific works that that both clear an innocent man’s name, and are highly entertaining as well.
Ultimately, one of the most important messages of both Richard Jewell and The Suspect is that one must never assume someone’s guilt based on news reports, and to always bring a critical eye to any narrative that purports to be the truth. In these days of trial by social media, where falsities and distortions abound and online mobs are constantly set to pounce on the latest target of their opprobrium, it’s an important moral that’s bears reiterating.
The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle
By Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen
Harry N. Abrams