How Warner Bros. is selling the latest story of an aggrieved white man from director Clint Eastwood.
There’s no question that there was nearly an injustice perpetrated on Richard Jewell, the security guard who found an explosive at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and helped save countless lives. Now his story is coming to the big screen in the appropriately titled Richard Jewell.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the title character, a well-meaning but slightly schlubby individual who suddenly is vaulted into the national spotlight. By virtue of his finding the device, he also unexpectedly finds himself at the top of the suspect list being put together by law enforcement, including the FBI. So too, the press – embodied by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) latches on to him as a likely suspect, someone to hang the narrative of the bombing on.
While the movie, which costars Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamm and others, fits into Eastwood’s thematic motif of making sure white men are recognized as the under-appreciated heroes they naturally are, it also has come under fire for how it goes about communicating that message. Despite that, it’s being sold by Warner Bros. as an awards season drama based on a moment from recent history.
Tracking estimates have the movie opening around $10 million this weekend, which would put it far off the pace in terms of winning the frame, but the 87 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes shows it could be helped by largely positive reviews.
“The world will know his name and the truth” is the awkwardly structured tagline that appears below the title on the poster (by marketing agency Legion Creative Group) from October. As the main image, Jewell is shown fighting his way through a crowd of eager reporters and others, trying to keep his face down as his mother (Kathy Bates) appears despondent over the whole thing. At the bottom we’re reminded this is based on a true story.
Released in early October, the first trailer (9.1 million views on YouTube) starts off with Jewell dealing with the aftermath of finding the bomb. The authorities consider him a suspect, mostly because he’s the one who did actually find it. So investigators and journalists focus almost solely on him, but he and his lawyer continue to push back against what they see as a conspiracy to hang the crime on him without actual evidence. The story being presented, then, is of an innocent man being railroaded by a lazy and likely corrupt system.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie opens with the trailer and is replaced by the key art when you close that. The content is pretty standard and boring, though.
Advertising and Publicity
Eastwood had originally set the project up at Fox, but following that studio’s acquisition by Disney it was moved over to his long-time home Warner Bros. The studio finally gave it a release date in September.
A few weeks later it was announced the film would debut at AFI Fest. That screening generated generally positive reviews but also altered critics to the fact that Eastwood and the writers created a fictional scene of Scruggs having sex with an FBI official in order to get information, something that seems offensive and unnecessary, especially in a movie about media manipulation.
Online ads featured a cropped version of the key art and linked to the movie’s official site.
The first – and to date only – clip released has Richard’s mother Barbara at a press conference proclaiming her son’s innocence while expressing sympathy for the victims of the bombing.
An exclusive featurette hosted by MovieClips featured Eastwood and others talking about making the movie, beginning with the article the story is based on. Another featurette titled “An American Tragedy” dove into the story a bit more while focusing on the injustice done to Jewell, though that may be overstated by just a bit.
Media and Press
Perhaps it’s because of the condensed timeline that resulted from Warner Bros. only giving it a release date a few months ago. Or perhaps the lack of substantial pre-release press activity is because the media narrative has been dominated by discussions of the filmmakers creating Scruggs’ trading sex for information.
Wilde defended her portrayal of Scruggs, saying the idea of a sexual transaction was merely “inferred” in the film and that there’s no evidence to suggest she did so. Still, even that inference is enough to be harmful when added to other movies that have made similar suggestions or stated it outright, even if there’s no basis for doing so.
Just days ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – where Scruggs worked – issued a statement asking WB to add a disclaimer making it clear that is a fictional element of the story. The editors and others at the paper made the point that not only is it disrespectful toward Scruggs, who passed away at a young age, but it also shows a lack of interest in how journalists of any gender do their jobs.
In response, the studio’s statement says the newspaper is simply trying to distract people from how the movie shows it got the initial story wrong. That doesn’t address the core issue the AJC raised and so reads more like a company more interested in defending its director than setting the record straight.
Rockwell’s appearance on “Kimmel” was one of the few press stops by the cast.
There have been a number of good writeups of the controversy surrounding the portrayal of Scruggs on screen from both media commentators and film columnists. They should be sought out and read for a fuller understanding than I can provide here on what such an unnecessary addition does to the reputation of not only the real person portrayed on screen but also women journalists as a whole.
What keeps sticking in my mind is why telling this story was deemed to be essential or important. Yes, Jewell was unfairly maligned in the press before all the facts came out, at which point he was cleared of suspicion. That doesn’t undo the damage done, but it does come as the result of organizations like the press and law enforcement diligently doing their jobs. And he went on to lead a relatively normal life after doing no time in jail.
Compare that to the countless people currently imprisoned for minor drug offenses, or there only because they took a plea deal upon realizing they couldn’t afford to mount a defense against charges they had no connection to. It’s just that kind of story told in Ava DuVerney’s recent Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” about the Central Park Five, some of whom were in jail for decades for crimes they were not involved in.
The campaign never really answers the question of why the movie is here or what it’s essential elements are. Instead, in the lack of any other compelling messages, the idea seems to be that any time a white male is falsely accused it’s worthy of being called out in a feature film. Eastwood and the writers seem to simply want to vilify the very organizations that keep us safe and informed simply because they sometimes get it wrong, but by focusing on such a minor example of that injustice it makes their point hard to swallow.