Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Richard Jewell

Did an Atlanta journalist really offer sex for a tip? Did the FBI really try to trick Jewell into a false confession? We break down Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic.

Paul Walter Hauser pats on his chest while eating; Richard Jewell stares into the distance.
Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell; Richard Jewell
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment and Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images.

Clint Eastwood’s biographical drama Richard Jewell is based on the real-life story of the security guard (played by Paul Walter Hauser) who was wrongly investigated by the FBI as a suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The movie was adapted from a lengthy 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner and The Suspect, a 2019 book by former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander, who was involved in the investigation, and former Wall Street Journal editor Kevin Salwen, who worked on that newspaper’s coverage of the attack. It is both strictly attentive to certain details and flexible about how they are remixed in service of the filmmaker’s own convictions.

The dramatic tension that animates the real-life Jewell saga is that Jewell had initially been hailed as a hero before the FBI and, in turn, the media began to treat him as the possible culprit. The biopic relies heavily on this 180-degree turn and massages even Jewell’s less positive qualities into a portrait of a pure-hearted dunderhead: the sort of hero that nobody may aspire to be, but that we all need. Meanwhile, the movie’s most controversial aspect has been its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, which this week escalated into the AJC threatening the filmmakers with a lawsuit. So, did Scruggs really offer to trade sex for a scoop? Did the FBI really deceive Jewell into thinking he was only being interviewed for an instructional video? And was this terrorist attack really carried out at a venue plastered with AT&T logos, or is that just because this movie is distributed by AT&T’s own Warner Bros.? We consulted Vanity Fair’s article, Alexander and Salwen’s book, the AJC’s reporting, and other sources to break it all down below.

The Bombing

As in the movie, Richard Jewell really did help discover the pipe bomb by virtue of his famously thorough adherence to protocol. He saw a backpack under a bench by his station and insisted that it be treated as a potential threat. While both Jewell and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Tom Davis initially suspected little of the package, The Suspect suggests Jewell really did treat it somewhat more seriously than Davis did. Then, as Jewell put it to Vanity Fair, “When Davis came back and said, ‘Nobody said it was theirs,’ that is when the little hairs on the back of my head began to stand up.” Jewell continued to do his part when the bomb was identified, clearing a 25-foot perimeter around the backpack and heading twice into the sound and light tower to warn the people inside to evacuate. Ultimately, the explosion directly killed one woman and injured more than 100 others. A cameraman from a Turkish television network also died of a heart attack he had while running to the site of the bombing.

Meanwhile, several cuts to a man calling 911 from a payphone with a bomb threat are also based on fact: The 911 call center did receive several calls that night from the real terrorist.

As for all the AT&T logos plastered throughout the film, those are based in reality as well.
According to Brenner’s article, the company’s publicists “booked him on TV and told him to wear the shirt with the AT&T logo.”

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) 

Both The Suspect and the Vanity Fair article create a complex portrait of Jewell. In some ways, he did seem to embody some of the stereotypes used to describe him: “child-man” and “mama’s boy.” His obsession with law enforcement was well-documented, and he did indeed own “an usually large collection of firearms” (as The Suspect puts it) that he laid out on his bed before the FBI searched his apartment, as well as paperweights that looked like hand grenades.

This obsession with law enforcement had also gotten Jewell into trouble with the people he so admired: He’d been arrested for impersonating a law officer, and his heavy-handed policing in previous jobs had made him enemies like Piedmont College President Ray Cleere. Yet neither did Richard Jewell fit neatly into the media caricatures that materialized during the height of the FBI investigation. At the time, Jay Leno compared him to Shawn Eckardt, “the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan.” (Hauser also happens to play the movie version of Eckardt in I, Tonya.) He enjoyed rich and fulfilling friendships not just with his lawyer but also David Dutchess (the man the FBI suspected was his lover and accomplice in the bombing). He was “unlucky in love,” as the Vanity Fair article tells it, but not helpless.

The FBI Investigation

Shaw, a composite of real-life FBI agents who investigated Jewell, has no single counterpart.
Jon Hamm as Tom Shaw
Warner Bros. Entertainment

The movie contrasts Jewell’s everyday heroism with the dual villainy of the media and the FBI, the latter of which is personified by the corrupt and incompetent FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). While the FBI characters are fictionalized—they’re composites—the freewheeling tactics they use are based on the real-life investigation. In the movie, FBI agents Shaw and Dan Bennett (Ian Gomez) attempt to lure Jewell into an interrogation and trick him into a confession by saying they want him to act in a training video. Tom Shaw and Dan Bennett correspond to the real-life case agents Don Johnson and Diader Rosario, respectively. The training video trick was Johnson’s contribution: an off-the-cuff invention to coax Jewell voluntarily into FBI offices without officially naming him a suspect.

What happened next was much as it is in the movie. After an hour, according to the Vanity Fair article, Johnson returned to say, “Let’s pretend that none of this happened. You are going to come in and start over, and by the way, we want you to fill out this waiver of rights.” In reality, however, it was then–FBI Director Louis Freeh and the FBI Headquarters in Washington, anxious that an incriminating interview would be inadmissible in court, who ordered that the case agents interrupt the interview to read Jewell his rights. The cameraman did indeed switch his camera tape, but there’s nothing in the book about the agents throwing it away, as they do in the movie.

In another scene, Watson Bryant intervenes as the FBI attempts to collect what’s called a voice exemplar, a recording for which Jewell is asked to repeat the words of the 911 bomb threat multiple times. This, down to Bryant’s declaration to the FBI that they would have to “fight” him, is how it really played out, according to The Suspect.

The movie omits, meanwhile, the maneuvers of Freeh, who had a reputation for micromanagement, and leaves out his choice to assign the case to the FBI’s former counterintelligence division, which was better known for its intimidation and manipulation skills than the gathering of evidence that would be admissible in court.

As the movie shows, Jewell’s weight, the fact that he lived with his mother, and his excessive adulation of law enforcement made him a target of the FBI and the media because he fit the profile of a lone bomber, especially as it had developed after another incident in 1984. In that incident, as the movie notes, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department who had been declared a hero for defusing a bomb during that year’s Summer Olympics was later revealed to have built the bomb himself.

As in the movie, the FBI did also receive a tip from Jewell’s former employer at Piedmont College. These and other plausible red herrings contributed to a convincing profile of Jewell as the bomber. And while profiling may be an accepted part of some criminal investigations, The Suspect makes clear that in this particular investigation, the profiling deviated from norms by identifying a single suspect (Jewell) rather than focusing on the crime.

Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde)

Olivia Wilde stands in the shadow of half-opened window blinds as Kathy Scruggs in this still from Richard Jewell
Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs
Warner Bros. Entertainment

Unlike Tom Shaw, Kathy Scruggs, who died in 2001, was a real reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who really did break the news that Jewell was the focus of the FBI investigation. Wilde’s Scruggs is cartoonishly vampy in a way that seems unfair to Scruggs’ memory, but the most damaging aspect of the movie’s depiction is the suggestion that she offered to sleep with a source for a scoop, an insinuation that recently provoked the AJC into threatening a defamation lawsuit against Eastwood and the filmmakers. (In movies, female reporters sleeping with sources is an old sexist trope. In real life, it’s an egregious violation of journalistic ethics.)

While The Suspect does describe how Scruggs’ “attire did little to dispel a growing ‘sleeps with her sources’ reputation,” it never specifies any source for this reputation. It also notes that despite Scruggs’ divisive, brash personality and outfits, “no one questioned [her] extraordinary drive and ability.” Similarly, the Vanity Fair article does mention that Scruggs was “characterized as ‘a police groupie’ by one former staff member,” but it does not specify who said this or what basis the staff member had, if any, for saying it. Most importantly, according to both the AJC and The Suspect, Scruggs’ scoop about the FBI’s investigation of Jewell came from her deep-seated relationship with local law enforcement cultivated over the course of many years as a reporter, not the promise of a one-night stand dangled in front of an FBI agent. 

When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds,” says Scruggs’ reporting partner, Ron Martz, in an AJC story published ahead of the film’s release. Martz appears in the film (played by David Shae), but according to the piece, he was never directly contacted.

On Dec. 9, the AJC sent a threatening letter via Hollywood lawyer Martin Singer to Warner Bros., Clint Eastwood, and screenwriter Billy Ray, demanding that the they release a statement acknowledging that its depictions were fictionalized and also add a “prominent disclaimer” to the end of the film. As the paper’s current editor, Kevin Riley, told Variety, “The film literally makes things up and adds to misunderstandings about how serious news organizations work.” Warner Bros. has not backed down, dismissing the AJC’s claims as “baseless” and telling Deadline that the movie was “based on a wide range of highly credible source material” and emphasizing that the “real victim” was Richard Jewell. The company has also noted that the movie has a disclaimer at the end, though it’s a version of Hollywood’s usual boilerplate (“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”), and the only viewers who will read it are those who sit through the end credits.

The insinuations of unethical journalistic practice notwithstanding, the movie does give Scruggs a redemption arc where she engages in a bit of her own sleuthing, walking from the payphones to the Olympic park and realizing Jewell could not have made the call. In reality, according to The Suspect, Scruggs came to the realization “gradually and painfully” in the absence of an official arrest of Jewell following her story and as she watched her “sources drying up.”

Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell)—and Jewell’s Other Lawyers

Side by side of Sam Rockwell tilting his head to the side, as the real Watson Bryant tilts his head in the opposite direction
Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant, and the real Watson Bryant
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment and Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images.

In the movie, Watson Bryant is a lone attorney taking on the system who ends up as Richard Jewell’s lawyer by virtue of the fact that he is the only one Jewell knows. He has only one assistant, Nadya (Nina Arianda), who plays a crucial role in the film by walking the distance from the payphone where the bomb threat had been made to the bomb site, thus showing that it could not have been Jewell (although the FBI’s later working theory, both in the movie and real life, was that Jewell had a lover and accomplice).

In reality, Richard Jewell’s case was fought with an entire legal team—not just Bryant but Lin Wood, Wayne Grant, Jack Martin, Richard Rackleff, and Watson’s brother Bruce, each with their own areas of expertise.* The strategy to have Bobi Jewell, Richard’s mother, appeal directly to President Bill Clinton at a press conference scheduled during the Democratic National Convention, was hatched jointly by the more media-savvy Wood and Grant. Bobi Jewell’s plea was a success and led to a shift in the media narrative.

Bates' Bobi Jewell cries in someone else's arms while the real Jewell stares into the camera.
Kathy Bates as Barbara “Bobi” Jewell; real Barbara “Bobi” Jewell
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment and Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images.

While the movie ends as it began, with a scene that demonstrates the bond between Watson Bryant and Richard Jewell, in real life the ending involved many more lawsuits. Lin Wood led the multiple libel lawsuits that Jewell ultimately filed—against CNN, NBC, the New York Post, Piedmont College, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. According to The Suspect, NBC settled for $595,000; CNN settled for $200,000 to Richard Jewell and $50,000 to Bobi Jewell; and Piedmont College ultimately settled for $325,000. Notably, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution refused to settle. In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in the AJC’s favor, concluding that while Jewell was a “tragic figure,” the paper’s reporting had been accurate.

The Real Bomber

Eric Robert Rudolph wasn’t identified as the bomber until two years after the initial bombing, which gave him opportunities to detonate three more bombs in the following years. While Rudolph does not get screen time, his biography is a laundry list of red flags. He was affiliated with the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, fundamentalist Christian Identity movement and ultimately confessed to bombing a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics. He had also made thorough preparations for the 1996 Summer Olympics attack by preparing about a year’s supply of provisions at a campsite in the Nantahala National Forest. Due to his skill as a survivalist, it took another five years even after he became a wanted fugitive for law enforcement to finally arrest him in 2003. He took a plea bargain to avoid capital punishment in 2005 and was sentenced to four life terms and 120 years in federal prison without parole.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2019: This article originally identified everyone in Bryant’s legal team as part of “an entire team of lawyers.” Not everyone on the legal team was a lawyer. (Richard Rackleff, for example, is a polygraph examiner.)