Explainers

The True Story Behind ‘Richard Jewell’, Explained

October 29, 2019
8 min read

‘Richard Jewell’ is a 2019 biographical drama movie directed by Clint Eastwood, from a script by Billy Ray. The movie is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article titled “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell”, written by Marie Brenner. The article and the movie attempt to tell the story of Richard Jewell, the security guard who was present at the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which took place in Georgia, Atlanta. Richard found the bomb, and his actions helped save the lives of many people. However, the media soon turned him into the culprit, from being the hero, when the FBI took him in for questioning.

The original article and Eastwood’s film attempts to go deep into Jewell’s story and show the problems of a media trial, and how media biases often color our perceptions, with innocent people ending up paying the price. The film is slated to release on December 13, 2019. Naturally, you must be wanting to familiarize yourself with the real story of the man who was the hero in the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing. We are here to help you out, as we bring the true story behind ‘Richard Jewell’.

What’s the True Story Behind ‘Richard Jewell’?

Richard Jewell was a native of Georgia who moved back to live with his mother Bobi Jewell, who was recovering from a foot operation. At the age of 34, Jewell began to look for jobs locally, having left his previous employers, Piedmont College. He found work as a security employer for AT&T. It was while he was working this job, that he became known in connection to the bombing at the 1996 Olympics.

The Centennial Olympic Park itself was designed as a ‘town square’ for the Olympics, where people would gather for various events. Spectators had assembled on that fateful night for a late concert and a bit of merrymaking. Sometime after midnight, the bomber planted a green backpack, which had a fragmentation laden pipe bomb underneath a bench.

Jewell, who was working as a security guard at that time, discovered the bag, opening it to see the bomb. He promptly alerted the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) around ten minutes before the actual bomber called 911 to deliver his warning. Jewell and other security guards were hard at work, clearing the immediate area around the bomb, to get people to safety and to allow the bomb squad to investigate the package. However, before the evacuation was complete, the bomb exploded.

While it injured over a hundred people, only one person actually died from the blast, that is, Alice Hawthorne. Another individual died at the incident, but he was a cameraman who passed away because of a heart attack while rushing to cover the bombing. Naturally, Jewell’s actions made him an immediate hero. The media welcomed him as such, realizing that if not for Richard’s actions, the casualties could have been much worse.

However, all this changed a few days later, when the FBI picked up Jewell for questioning. The media learned that he was being treated as a ‘person of interest’ in the bombing. They completely ran with this story, painting a picture of Richard Jewell as a disgruntled loser, who probably planted the bomb himself, so he could discover it and become a hero. They decided that the terrorist attack was his own creation.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the most relentless, combing through Jewell’s life, saying that details fit the profile of Jewell as a lone bomber. In fact, their headline about the hero having planted the bomb himself turned the tides of the media against him. Jewell’s former employers, Piedmont College, added fuel to the fire, giving interviews with Atlanta newspapers describing Jewell as a badge-wearing zealot, and someone who would come up with epic reports for minor infractions.

While the tables had firmly turned against Jewell, the FBI descended on his home, conducting searches. The media hounded him, essentially labeling him as guilty. Jewell’s everyman narrative was furthered even more when he hired a lawyer, Watson Bryant, to defend him. Bryant was a lawyer operating below the radar, doing property closures, before representing Jewell. Although the lawyer did his bit valiantly, he had little help, having only a secretary to rely on.

In October 1996, the investigating US Attorney sent Jewell a formal letter, clearing him, but people kept considering Jewell guilty up until early 1997. At this time, the FBI found links between the Centennial Park Bombing and two other bombings that had taken place at abortion clinics and a gay bar. Ultimately, their investigations led to a right-wing extremist and white supremacist named Eric Rudolph, who pled guilty to the charges in 2005.

Jewell had always maintained that he was innocent and the formal acknowledgments allowed him to gain the validation he deserved. In 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno regretted that the FBI leaked Jewell’s name to the media and sought an apology. Georgia governor Sonny Perdue went on to honor Jewell’s act of heroism after he was completely cleared following the 2005 confession. Jewell went on to hold various other law enforcement jobs, as a police officer in Pendergrass and a deputy sheriff in Meriwether County. He also gave speeches at colleges.

However, we should also mention that Jewell made it a point to settle scores with all the media houses and Piedmont College for badmouthing him. He sued them all for libel. Piedmont settled for an undisclosed amount, as did New York Post and CNN. NBC settled for $500,000 despite standing by the fairness of their story. Only The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or rather the parent company, Cox Enterprises, did not settle with Jewell. Despite his estate pressing on, finally, the appeal was disregarded by the court.

Jewell continued to be a figure that was seen as someone vilified by the media. He became a symbol for what overzealous reporting can result in, and how it can be misleading. Interestingly, ‘Saturday Night Live’ called Jewell, where he jokingly protested his innocence in the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Jewell has also appeared in Michael Moore’s 1997 film, ‘The Big One’. After leading an extraordinary life, Jewell passed away in 2007, when he was 44. At that time, he was suffering from severe heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes.

Richard Jewell Cast: Who’s Playing Who?

‘Richard Jewell’, the film, is based on a tale that is surreal. Naturally, you will want to know about the characters who appear in the movie and whether they are based on real-life people as well. First off, we have Paul Walter Hauser playing the titular character. Jewell was born Richard White, in Danville, and ultimately married Dana Jewell. His mother is Bobi Jewell, played by Kathy Bates in the movie. Bobi was an insurance claims co-ordinator who married Robert Earl White, an employee of Chevrolet. After they divorced, she married John Jewell, an insurance executive. Richard was adopted by John.

The other character who leaves a strong impression is Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell. Bryant is the tireless lawyer who fought for Jewell without having many resources. He was there for Jewell as an attorney and a friend when the man needed him the most. However, when Jewell went after the big companies for libel, he did not rely on Watson, going instead with L. Lin Wood, a high profile attorney.

Jon Hamm appears as Tom Shaw, one of the FBI agents who questions Jewell when he is arrested. Shaw’s treatment of Jewell shows that the FBI thought they had their man. In fact, the Justice Department investigated the FBI believing that they had tried to manipulate Jewell into waiving his constitutional rights. However, the investigation did not turn up anything conclusive.

Olivia Wilde appears as Kathy Scruggs, the ruthless reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the newspaper which came out with articles that even likened Jewell to Wayne Williams, the serial killer (you might know him from ‘Mindhunter‘).

The cast is rounded out by Wayne Duvall, who plays the part of a polygraph examiner. While the role might not seem too big, Jewell’s lawyers actually hired an ex-FBI man to conduct a polygraph test on Jewell, which he passed. Following this, the Bureau eased up on their investigation of Jewell as the prime suspect.

As is evident, the movie has gathered a stellar cast, and the performances will only heighten this serious drama, as the real-life characters are represented on screen by cast members who are sure to breathe new life into the stunning ballad of Richard Jewell.

Read More: Best Movies Based on True Stories on Netflix

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