On Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell is a biographical story of injustice: an ordinary man—who discovered pipe bombs at the Centennial Olympic Park before detonation—was first celebrated as a hero, but became wrongly accused as the perpetrator.

Richard Jewell was depicted as an eccentric man with a life-long passion to serve as a law enforcement officer. His employments, including as a campus police officer and sheriff’s deputy, were however short-lived. Jewell’s checkered résumé was precisely the reason for which the FBI suspected him, because he “[fitted] the profile of a person who might create an incident so he could emerge as a hero”.

Although the events of Richard Jewell happened in 1996, the thematic issues remain contemporary and relevant. How should we balance the public’s right to know and freedom of expression, with the presumption of innocence? How can the FBI break from its continuing pattern of wrongful prosecutions?

Commercial and reputational pressures motivate media companies to be first to ‘break the news’. Journalists work on a never-ending hamster wheel of ‘breaking news’—and even “breaking views”. We risk the publication of incomplete stories that can cause irretractable damages to innocent people—as was the case for Jewell. The Lincoln Memorial confrontation is a more current example.

More concerning, media companies are expected to abide to a code of journalistic ethics and standards. Social media and non-traditional media outlets do not. Imagine how Jewell would be vilified on Twitter if the events were to happen today!

I had sympathy, as did the depicted Jewell, for the FBI’s mistaken conviction of Jewell’s responsibility for the bombing. In the movie, the FBI perceived every piece of evidence to support their psychological profile, or ‘narrative’ in my words, of a “hero bomber”—although the same evidence could have also proven Jewell’s innocence. The movie reminds us of an important lesson that the FBI repeatedly forgets: to discern ‘facts’ from all perspectives. The FBI continues to make the same mistakes today, such as the wrongful prosecution of Anming Hu, a Chinese-Canadian researcher who was accused of economic espionage.

There is controversy related to the depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist who first reported Jewell as a FBI suspect. Scruggs was portrayed as an ambitious reporter who would leverage her appeal to trade ‘sex for tips’. Commentators have condemned this depiction as unfair and sexist. I agree. Scruggs cannot defend her name because she died of a morphine overdose in 2001. The movie could have been more nuanced without a scene of Scruggs’ seduction of her FBI source.

Richard Jewell is nonetheless another outstanding movie by Clint Eastwood. It was unfortunate that the movie was not well timed in its release, which might have contributed to its disappointing box office performance. Some commentators appeared to discredit Mr. Eastwood as a Hollywood conservative—implying that his movie was aimed to criticize the FBI and media (both enemies of Donald Trump). Whatever Mr. Eastwood’s political inclinations are, we should not diminish the lessons that should be drawn from Jewell’s ordeal.

Indeed, the movie would not impress without an excellent cast. Paul Walter Hauser was the perfect face of an eccentric, silly character. Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio had apparently planned to act as Richard Jewell and his lawyer; but their celebrity would not have given the gravitas that the movie deserves.

I greatly enjoyed Richard Jewell. It was an excellent movie for a Friday night.

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