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Mary McNamara: Outcry over 'Richard Jewell' is proof that #MeToo is changing things

Mary Mcnamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

It seems unlikely that Billy Ray wrote and Clint Eastwood directed "Richard Jewell" in order to test the state of sexism in post-#MeToo Hollywood. But that's exactly what their film did. And lo and behold, it seems that things are not as bad as they once were.

Oh, in the actual film they are very bad. In the actual film, sexism is alive and well and multitasking, as it has been for so long, under the guise of character development and exposition. But this time, people are noticing. This time, people are not having it. There have been so many critiques, essays and takes that the media outrage churned up by "Richard Jewell" the movie, which opens in theaters Friday, is now almost as intense as the media circus that surrounded Richard Jewell the man. And for much the same reason.

For those who have not read any of these pieces, "Richard Jewell" tells the based-on-actual-events story of an odd but endearing security guard (played by Paul Walter Hauser) whose life became a Kafka-esque nightmare after he identified a suspicious package at a concert at Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics.

While on-site police initially dismissed his demand that the package be treated as a potential danger, Jewell insisted -- and when the pipe bomb it contained exploded, killing two and injuring 100, many concert-goers were out of harm's way thanks to his efforts. For a few days, he was a national hero. Then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a front page story by Kathy Scruggs revealing that Jewell was a person of interest in the FBI investigation, in part because he fit the profile of a "hero bomber." Other outlets, at least one of which had previously been aware of the investigation's focus, picked up on the story. Jewell became the center of a media maelstrom, publicly vilified for a crime with which he had not been officially charged and did not commit. It is a heartbreaking tale, historically and as presented in the film.

In Ray and Eastwood's telling, however, the original sin of the story is not the FBI's latching onto Jewell as a prime suspect based on a profile -- or even the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's publication of an accurate if perhaps ill-advised front page piece explaining how he fit that profile. No, in the film, the original sin is clearly Scruggs' conduct: arriving at the concert with angry disdain for the "soft" assignment, itching to find something "crime-y," and surveying the hideous destruction with a prayer that the guy behind it will turn out to be "interesting" in some way.

Within days, having heard there is a person of interest, she sidles up to FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and seduces him in order to get him to reveal that person's name. Which he does.

 

Shaw is also portrayed as having issues that might cloud his objective search for justice -- he too is initially angry at the soft assignment of providing security at the concert, then at having a security guard save the day under his nose. He seems only too happy to make Jewell the prime suspect. Frankly it would have made more narrative sense if Shaw had leaked Jewell's name to Scruggs because he couldn't stand the fact that a "rent-a-cop" out-policed the FBI.

Shaw, by the way, is a composite, a fictional character, which gave Ray far greater latitude with his motivations than those of Scruggs, who is not.

Still, when faced with the expositional problem of how Scruggs got the scoop (Scruggs, who died in 2001, refused to reveal her sources, plural, even when faced with the threat of jail), Ray decided, based on nothing but years of sexist precedent, to have her sleep her way to success. You know, like so many women do.

In all likelihood, neither Ray nor Eastwood set out to smear Scruggs' professional reputation. Ray recently told Deadline that he believes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's loud criticism and threats of a defamation suit over her depiction are simply an attempt to deflect outrage over the paper's role in "destroying the life of a good man" and that he stands by "every word and assertion in the script."

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