I wanted to encourage folks to go see this movie a couple weeks ago when it first came out, BUT, I thought I’d better wait to see it so I could tell my readers if the movie presented things accurately and if not, where it strayed from the truth. I finally got to see it earlier tonight, and if it’s still in theaters near you, I’d highly recommend seeing it.
For those too young to remember, the movie details the events around the bombing of Centinnial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta Georgia. I happened to live in the suburbs of Atlanta at the time and was at ‘ground zero’ (so to speak) for the nightmare documented in the film.
Richard Jewell was the security guard who discovered the bomb. It was only his pushing to follow protocol that the backpack it was in was even investigated as a suspicious package instead of ignored as a forgotten bag. The bomb went off in the process of the police trying to get people away from it. 111 people were injured in the explosion and 1 died.
For about 48 hours, Richard Jewell was a hero. THEN, the FBI decided he was a suspect, AND the Atlanta Journal Constitution (the local newspaper) got hold of that information as well. What followed was 88 days of the FBI turning Jewell’s life upside down and inside out as the national media crucified the man.
What was the basis you ask? He was a poor white guy who lived at home with his mother, had a history of taking his job too seriously and a small firearms collection. In short, he fit the profile of somebody who would do something like this in order to get attention for himself.
No physical evidence was ever found, The FBI tried to trick him early on into a confession by asking him to help them make a “training video” about suspicious packages during which they tried to weasel him into signing a waiver of his constitutional rights as part of the training.
When they got around to tracing the location of the bomb threat call to 911, they discovered the pay phone was too far away for Jewell to have made the call then have found the bomb a minute later at the park, SO, they created an accomplice in an old friend of Jewell’s and said he (Jewell) did it because he was a frustrated and angry closeted homosexual (he was straight by the way). Talk about a slam against him and gay people in general though…
The media circus was even more deplorable. There was an entire caravan of various news agencies outside his apartment 24/7. They followed him and his mother everywhere. They crucified him with wild speculation and distorting the facts. Politicians from Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell to Bill Clinton all made at least veiled remarks condemning him as well.
Just under 3 months of hell with everybody from Tom Brokaw to the Atlanta Journal trying to whip the public into a frenzy while the FBI ignored the lack of physical evidence and the phone call timing issue and Jewell passing a polygraph test.
Eric Robert Rudolph turned out to be the real culprit, and was eventually caught, but not before bombing an abortion clinic and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta and another abortion clinic in Alabama. He wasn’t arrested until 2003 also.
Clint Eastwood did a remarkable job on this one, and it’s pretty fair in my opinion. The only thing it really leaves out is the personal involvement of then FBI Director Louis Freeh. While on one level that might have taken away from focus on the events directly around Richard Jewell, it could have been a powerful addition in terms of showing abuse of power and just how hard Washington DC was pushing for a fast conviction.
Even the portrayal of Jewell is pretty accurate. The man had his flaws, including getting dismissed from a college campus police job for pushing his authority too far. I think it’s fair to say there was enough in his background to merit an initial look at him as a suspect. He was, none the less a hero though, and probably saved hundreds of lives.
It would be bad enough if this was a lone incident too, but a decade earlier, the FBI and media did the exact same thing to the McMartin family in an alledged sexual abuse scandal at the preschool the family ran. The family was eventually found innocent and the FBI exposed for coaching the children into false testamony. Not before the family was ruined though. They were still getting death threats a decade later also.
Richard Jewell made out a little better… After being cleared as a suspect, he went on to become a deputy sheriff in a small North Georgia town and sucessfully sued several news outlets and Piedmont College. Most of the lawsuits were settled for undisclosed amounts, but it’s known that Jewell got $500,000 from NBC.
There’s a lesson here for those who believe the FBI is beyond reproach, or that the mainstream media is in any way honest or not manipulative. The media has been playing games with the public since at least when the Hearst papers printed stories that helped start the Spanish American War.
As a final note, to show you how unrepentent the media can be; the AJC threatened to sue over the depiction of the reporter that broke the story. The paper claims she never offered sexual favors to an FBI agent in exchange for inside info, AND that she’d gotten the information from her well established local law enforcement contacts. The production company told the AJC to get lost. If you’re wondering which version to believe by the way, in 1997 Janet Reno said that the Dept of Justice owed Jewell an apology for the FBI leak to the press.