Three months ago, I supposed the next great movie newsroom drama would look more like Absence of Malice than All The President’s Men. Who knew that Clint Eastwood, filmdom’s Great Disruptor, would so soon be on his way to making sense of that supposition?
Just last week, Warner Bros. confirmed that Eastwood was poised to begin shooting Richard Jewell, the real-life story of a security guard who was mistakenly hounded as a possible perpetrator of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Park bombing. Following news reports, the studio acknowledged that Eastwood will be filming in Georgia, never mind the calls for a boycott over the state’s new abortion law. But that likely won’t be the last spark of controversy around a project that has it all: Reputational damage, over-reaching journalists, investigative onslaught – just like Absence of Malice, and very much like a scene from the current media-political wars.
Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article The Ballad of Richard Jewell, and written by Billy Ray with Paul Walter Hauser in the title role, Eastwood’s film has nowhere to go but into the maelstrom.
A glance at the source material reminds us that Jewell and his legal team had some serious issues with CNN, now Warner’s corporate cousin in a business family owned by AT&T. Though CNN has defended the way it covered Jewell during the weeks when he was widely suspected of planting a bomb that he had actually, and fortunately, discovered, the network has confirmed settling a claim by the guard, who separately sued and settled with NBC and the New York Post. He also pressed but did not prevail in a suit against Cox Enterprises as owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That’s already a lot of media embarrassment.
But where it gets stickier – dare we say, ironic? – is that Jewell’s work at Olympic Park brought him close enough to Olympic patron AT&T that the company’s communications people asked him to wear their logo shirt during his first televised interviews, before the investigative cloud descended. Reliving all those connections on-screen won’t be fun, especially given that CNN is now among the media outlets being sued by one of Jewell’s former lawyers, L. Lin Wood, over coverage and commentary around a confrontation involving the Covington, Ky., high-school student Nick Sandmann earlier this year.
The stakes in that one are colossal. The suit demands $250 million from CNN, and Wood has filed similarly large claims against both The Washington Post and NBCUniversal.
Whether or not Eastwood’s film makes the coming Oscar season – and it’s not impossible, given his quick pace on pictures like Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby – Richard Jewell should be very much in the spotlight as those suits head toward pre-trial hearings and discovery motions. Wood may or may not be a named character in the new movie, but it’s not hard to imagine him figuring in the press attention that will greet its troubling portrayal of past behavior by the press, much as litigators Ed Masry and Tom Girardi came to the fore with the release of Erin Brockovich. So a unit of AT&T will be backing a project that likely helps the current adversary of another unit of AT&T.
Perhaps worse, Jewell’s story is that of a life that was damaged – Jewell died in 2007 at the age of 44, not long after one Eric Rudolph finally confessed to the Atlanta bombing – by the heavy-handed tactics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s all detailed in Brenner’s article. And those details can’t help but figure in a film that will more or less coincide with the debate around promised reports examining highly contentious law enforcement and intelligence actions during the last presidential campaign.
That’s a volatile mix, the more so because Richard Jewell – whether part of the Oscar race, or just behind it – will land in the middle of yet another angry election season.
So, at the age of 89, Clint Eastwood, an old pro when it comes to stirring things up, is set to do it again. Big time.