Clint Eastwood’s new film restores the “hero” status of the security guard whose life was ripped apart by claims he bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the director and stars said on Wednesday.
Richard Jewell dramatises the story of the innocent man who found himself at the centre of a terror investigation and devastating media storm following the blast at the Summer Games which led to two deaths and wounded over 100 people.
The former cop was initially hailed as a hero after he spotted the pipe bomb at Centennial Olympic Park, helping save hundreds more from harm, but was soon identified by journalists as an FBI suspect.
“He never got the benefit of being innocent until proven guilty,” Eastwood told journalists on the red carpet of its world premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
Jewell was “prejudged before really the knowledge was there”, the 89-year-old director added.
Never arrested or charged, Jewell was cleared by the FBI after 88 days. But TV networks camped outside his home for the duration, hounding Jewell and his family.
He became the subject of wild speculation and ridicule. Jewell had moved back in with his mother in his mid-thirties after being demoted for crashing his police car.
Jewell sued several news outlets for defamation, claiming their stories depicted him as someone with an odd personality who was probably guilty.
Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno later apologised after dubbing Jewell “Unadoofus”, a pun on the notorious “Unabomber” murderer.
“He didn’t deserve it. He was an actual hero and he was tried in the media before any of the facts were in,” said Jon Hamm, who plays an FBI agent.
“It can happen again, and happens all the time, because information travels even faster now,” warned the Mad Men star.
But the film itself has already triggered controversy.
One of its main characters is Kathy Scruggs, the real-life reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) who first identified Jewell as a suspect.
Scruggs, portrayed by Olivia Wilde, is depicted trading sex with an FBI agent (Hamm) in exchange for learning the suspect’s identity.
In an email to AFP on Wednesday, the newspaper’s current editor Kevin G Riley said the portrayal of the late Scruggs was “offensive and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era”.
“There is no evidence that this ever happened,” he wrote.
Riley also defended the newspaper’s sourcing, writing that the investigation into Jewell was about to be made public and that AJC’s later reporting helped to exonerate Jewell.
The real culprit, Eric Rudolph, was arrested in 2003 after a string of bombings on abortion clinics and a gay nightclub, and sentenced to life without parole two years later.
In 2007, Jewell died of natural causes, at the age of 44.
“It’s not revisionist history,” said Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Jewell in the movie. “We’re shedding light on history and truth.”