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Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell' had
promise. Why'd he have to spoil it with falsehoods?
In a movie, you have to keep things
interesting. But does that have to include making up damaging details about
a real person?
James Alan Fox Opinion columnist
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Dec. 18,2019 | Updated
1:11 p.m. ET Dec. 18,2019
I was really looking forward to
seeing Clint Eastwood's new film, "Richard Jewell," released Friday, about
the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the security guard
who was falsely believed to be responsible for killing one woman and
injuring over 100 others. It promised to serve as an important reminder
against the rush to judgement and the often prejudiced court of public
opinion. At the same time, it would reinforce the idea that random violence
and terrorism are hardly a new concern.
However, my anticipation has
greatly diminished following revelations about a certain artistic license
taken in the film. Just as Jewell was mercilessly mistreated by the press
and the public, so too was Eastwood reckless in his characterization of a
former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, who is depicted offering
sexual favors in exchange for a scoop.Making up damaging,
false stories about real people isn't wise
form of unethical conduct is not unheard of in cases involving highly
competitive news gathering, it was apparently added to the plot for dramatic
appeal. Moreover, dead people don't have the same privacy rights as the
living, and that reporter is not around to defend her reputation and good
Over the past few decades, the true crime genre has grown in
popularity, with countless books and movies telling tales of murder and
mayhem. Even crimes that are inherently fascinating are often embellished
for the sake of entertainment value and, of course, profit.
for example the 1992 television movie "Overkill," starring Jean Smart as
Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The film portrayed a middle-age family
man who, after soliciting sex from Wuornos, was fatally shot by her. The
dead man's words and actions, as depicted in the film, were invented by
screenwriters. The dead man was, for obvious reasons, unable to testify, and
the only other witness to what actually took place the assailant herself
wouldn't have been able to provide the most trustworthy testimony, to put it
mildly. The lurid encounter, however it unfolded, was in all likelihood
mortifying for the victim's family, and Hollywood's "build your own
adventure" approach to their tragedy no doubt caused them further pain.
Even not-so-innocent people can be abused in storytelling. Years ago
during a prison visit, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi complained to me
about how one true crime author had made up dialogue between him and his
accomplice and even contrived his private thoughts. Bianchi had committed
the crimes but not necessarily in the manner described in the book.
When the lines are blurred, who's to say what's real and what's not?
Of course, books and films about crimes and other historical
developments often concede from the outset that they are only based on or
inspired by real people and events. Unfortunately, many readers and viewers
are unable or just too lazy to be appropriately discerning and critical in
their consumption of entertainment. Moreover, when it comes to television,
viewers often fail to appreciate the shift from truth to fiction as the
evening programming lineup moves from news broadcasts right into prime-time
Even smart people can be confused. In a prepared speech
delivered decades ago, then-Gov. Hugh Carey of New York identified Jane
Pittman as a heroic woman in the struggle for racial justice in America.
Ernest J. Gaines' "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" remains a truly
outstanding book, but it can only be found in the fiction section of your
local bookstore or Amazon account. I don't mean to suggest that Carey was
singularly foolish in this blunder; after all, the story (including the CBS
adaptation for television) seemed very realistic.
So, in this clash
between the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (along with its parent company Cox
Enterprises) and film director Clint Eastwood, I firmly side with the
newspaper. Although embellishment and exaggeration are normally acceptable
when writing or scripting about actual events, extra care is required not to
defame or gratuitously embarrass innocent people or institutions. Offering a
global disclaimer about certain events being changed for dramatic appeal is
insufficient when those changes disparage people, be they alive or dead.James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of
Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of
USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "Extreme Killing:
Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox.