Richard Jewell opens wide this week, but the Clint Eastwood-directed film could find itself in court soon afterward facing defamation charges if Atlanta’s leading newspaper doesn’t get the results it wants.
“It is highly ironic that a film purporting to tell a tragic story of how the reputation of an FBI suspect was grievously tarnished appears bent on a path to severely tarnish the reputation of the AJC, a newspaper with a respected 150-year-old publishing legacy,” declares an explosive letter from attorney Marty Singer sent to Warner Bros and Oscar winner Eastwood on behalf of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today (read it here).
Fueled by controversy the past two weeks over the film’s depiction of the Olivia Wilde-portrayed Kathy Scruggs allegingly trading sex with an FBI agent for information that security guard Jewell was their lead suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, the correspondence sent today makes no bones about the next step being a “defamation lawsuit in various jurisdictions.”
This escalation follows AJC Editor-in-Chief Kevin Riley insisting in public statements and past letters that the now-deceased Scruggs never traded sex for tips in the widely covered story. That story flooded newspapers and cable news with banners identifying Jewell as the FBI’s top suspect. Heroically having helped get hundreds of civilians out of harm’s way just before the July 1996 bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, the AT&T security guard later was cleared by the Bureau and the media after about three heavily scrutinized months as virtually public enemy No. 1.
Coming the same day that Richard Jewell essentially was snubbed in the Golden Globes nominations, Riley’s insistence on what Scruggs seemingly didn’t do and the role that the AJC played in eventually exonerating Jewell is what Monday’s letter reiterates with blunt force.
“The Richard Jewell film falsely portrays the AJC and its personnel as extraordinarily reckless, using unprofessional and highly inappropriate reporting methods, and engaging in constitutional malice by recklessly disregarding information inconsistent with its planned reporting,” the seven-page correspondence from the Hollywood heavyweight lawyers to Eastwood and the now-AT&T-owned studio says. “This, too, is the height of irony, since all those involved in the film’s creation and dissemination and its false portrayal of the AJC are the ones who have acted recklessly and are engaging in constitutional malice,” it adds.
“Accordingly, we hereby demand that you immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” the letter proclaims of the movie starring Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell. “We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”
Warner Bros has not responded to request for comment on the letter, which we understand it received this morning. However, the letter from the Lavely & Singer partner wants their stated significant response from the film “based on the true story,” as its promotional material states, ASAP or they plan to move fast filing in the courts — a lot of courts, it seems
“Since the film will be released internationally, my clients do not need to satisfy constitutional malice criteria for a successful defamation lawsuit in various jurisdictions including, but not limited to, the UK, France, and Australia,” Singer asserts of the movie, which opens Friday in North America. “My clients will simply need to establish that statements in the film are false and that it is defamatory by harming my client’s reputation, one of the finest newspapers in the world.”
Speaking to Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro last week, Wilde decried what she saw as the moves toward her character “being boiled down to one inferred scene.” The actor said that, based on her research on Scruggs and the Billy Ray-penned script, “what I discovered was that she was an incredibly intrepid, dogged reporter, a woman in 1996 who rose in the ranks of a newspaper.” The Booksmart director added, “It’s not a very easy thing to do.”