jhrjeEXCLUSIVE: Fox has closed a deal to acquire rights to Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “The Ballad Of Richard Jewell”, which will be developed for Jonah Hill to play the title subject. Jewell was the security guard who discovered a backpack in the Olympics compound in Atlanta in 1996. Initially hailed a hero for reporting the suspicious knapsack and then helping clear bystanders from the area before it exploded, Jewell was subsequently vilified just three days later as a potential suspect, his life and reputation torn apart in the advent of the 24 hour news cycle. Leonardo DiCaprio will play a lawyer Jewell knew casually, a Southern attorney who mostly did real estate closings and seemed in over his head, but he guided Jewell through a hellish Twilight Zone that went on even after the FBI officially cleared Jewell’s name three months later.

leodBrenner, whose VF article was the original source material for the Michael Mann-directed tobacco whistle-blower tale The Insider, accompanied Jewell and his attorney just as it finally became clear he had nothing to do with placing the bomb. The film will be produced by Appian Way’s DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Hill and Kevin Misher, the latter of whom brought in the article. Misher Films’ Andy Berman will also have a producing role. Mike Ireland is overseeing for Fox.

jleoThis comes as both DiCaprio and Hill are up for Oscars for Best Picture nominee The Wolf Of Wall Street. It is particularly a strong role for Hill, who continues his remarkable transition from comic actor to serious roles that started with an Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball and continues with the Rupert Goold-directed True Story, in which Hill plays Michael Finkel, a disgraced journalist who got the chance at redemption when a suspected killer (James Franco) took Finkel’s name, and would only talk to that journalist. That project is also at Fox, with New Regency.

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This latest deal seems timely with the Sochi Winter Olympics about to begin, but this is more a cautionary tale about how a media rush to judgment, based on law enforcement leaks and rumors, can trample the rights of individuals before the facts are even in. Jewell’s move from hero to a potential bomber looking for attention happened in an alarmingly short span before, in his words, the FBI and journalists were on him “like piranha on a bleeding cow.” Based on the flimsiest evidence and the FBI’s zeal to corral a suspect, Jewell, a former sheriff’s deputy who earlier that year moved in with his mother to care for her during a health crisis, and took a security job because he thought it would be strong resume material as he tried to become a cop, was suddenly depicted as a 34-year-old loser who lived with his mother.

olympicbomAfter the Atlanta Journal Constitution boldly wrote a front-page story that flatly said Jewell fit the profile of a lone bomber, 10,000 reporters decamped outside their small apartment, which the FBI tore apart looking for evidence, taking hair samples and fingerprints. Jewell’s mother was particularly traumatized, particularly when her favorite newsman, Tom Brokaw, came on NBC and reported the feds probably had enough to arrest and charge her son, but perhaps not enough to convict him yet. Jay Leno turned Jewell into a nightly running joke on The Tonight Show, ridiculing him for his weight and other matters. It was an ugly chapter for journalism, with bogus reporting that included the assertion on CNN that Jewell was seen before the explosion with a homemade bomb. Lawsuits were filed and settled with several news outlets. Jewell died in 2007 at age 44, and at least in his obits, he was called a hero. An anti-government militant later confessed to the crime.

DiCaprio and Hill are managed by LBI, Hill by WME, and the deal was struck for Brenner by Ron Bernstein at ICM Partners.