Clint Eastwood is a complicated, forever-young, endlessly prolific American icon. His new movie, “Richard Jewell,” delivers a tough and needed examination of the price of aggression gone bad.
The movie tells how the FBI joined with the nation’s media to wrong Jewell, an odd security guard who somehow became the lead suspect in the 1996 Atlanta bombing that killed two and injured 111. Jewell was slandered by women and men too quick to judge and too slow to investigate.
I’ve long been a fan of Eastwood’s work, even though he’s highly erratic in his output. He was born in 1930, before the late James Dean, but this 89-year-old is still humming.
“Jewell” ranks among Clint’s better movies. It’s understated and, usually, rings true. Paul Walter Hauser portrays Jewell, an awkward, kind, stumbling man who, as the world watches, finally finds his strength. It’s a sensitive and authentic performance that will stick in your mind for years.
But why, I must ask, did Eastwood in his quest to reveal truths about Jewell sink into spreading falsehoods about Kathy Scruggs? She’s the feisty, relentless Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story that Jewell was the FBI’s lead suspect. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray show Scruggs trading sexual favors for information from an FBI source. No evidence — zero — supports this ugly fabrication.
The movie’s depiction of Scruggs is vicious, sexist and inexcusable.
A tip if you see the movie: Any time Scruggs emerges on screen, you’re in trouble. Hey, the whole audience is in trouble. I expected sirens to go off any time Scruggs walked into a room. Truth gets lost, and often.
Did Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, hold up a newspaper to a cheering newsroom?
Did Jewell’s lawyer dramatically march into the same newsroom and call Scruggs a “parasite?”
And here’s the most gnawing slice of Eastwood’s and Ray’s inaccurate slap at Scruggs: She can’t defend herself. She died in 2001 of a morphine overdose, and officials could not determine if she intentionally killed herself. Her dog Sadie stood by Scruggs body when her corpse was discovered. She had long suffered severe back pain and was struggling with Crohn’s disease. She was 24 days short of her 43rd birthday.
The Jewell experience “crushed her like a june bug on the sidewalk,” former co-worker Tony Kiss told Vanity Fair.
Bill Torpy serves as metro columnist at the Journal-Constitution, where he’s worked 30 years. He knew Scruggs. He laughed Friday afternoon as he thought back to her.
“She was bigger than life,” Torpy said. “She wore short skirts. She had big hair. She had that ’80s hair in the ’90s.”
Scruggs was a superb reporter. She drove her tiny, sporty Mazda Miata all over Atlanta. She packed perfume and a pistol in her purse. She constantly talked with sources as she chased stories.
On one of those stories, she arrived at the murder scene before the police. After crawling through a back window, Scruggs was standing beside the corpse.
“Where have you been?” she asked police when they arrived.
In the movie, she’s reduced to slinky, mean reporter, drained of all humanity, transformed to cartoon character.
“The way she’s depicted, supposedly sleeping with the FBI agents, is Hollywood trope,” Torpy said. “It’s ham-handed, predictable and molded to fit a preconceived notion of a newspaper out to get somebody.”
Eastwood and Ray cruelly and indefensibly create a one-dimensional villain, and even that one dimension is thin. Eastwood and Ray do needless damage to hard-working, thoroughly ethical female reporters.
Do female newspaper reporters sleep with sources for information?
No, no, no. Come on, Clint. You’re better than this.
Jewell died, only 44, in 2007, but he fully breathes in a movie that soars as fanfare for a common man.
“We had nothing against Richard Jewell,” Torpy said. “The one thing I liked about the movie is it was very sympathetic to him. It made him look like a likable guy.”
Scruggs is never allowed to roar to life in all her complicated, brassy wonder, leaving a dishonest stain on this otherwise honest movie.
Eastwood and Ray should — must, really — apologize to those who love and mourn Scruggs.