“It’s always tragic when people run off with half information and don’t really have the truth set up in front of them,” Clint Eastwood said in a rare interview with the Associated Press this week. “The press is sometimes in a hurry because there’s so much competition to be the first to do something.”
The director is referring in his quote to the catastrophe that befell Richard Jewell, the security guard who saved many lives from a domestic terrorist attack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta before being wrongfully accused of the crime himself. A journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kathy Scruggs, reported that the hero was actually a suspect—before Jewell was even made aware he was under investigation. Ultimately, it would take nearly three months before he was able to clear his name.
The irony, however, is that despite Eastwood’s stated disdain for those who might “run off with half information and don’t really have the truth set up in front of them,” that is exactly what he did with his depiction of Kathy Scruggs in his new film, Richard Jewell. Her villainous characterization is an unseemly blemish on an otherwise decent movie, and it reveals a lot about the attitudes toward media—and women—currently pervading America.
Although Richard Jewell is only hitting theaters today, the backlash has been brewing for weeks. The main point of contention is that, in the film, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) sleeps with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) in order to get information on the Olympic bombing—despite no evidence that suggests the real-life Scruggs had ever done such a thing. Not only does this portrayal perpetuate the Hollywood trope of women in media sleeping their way to the scoop (as in House of Cards and Thank You for Smoking), it does so at the expense of a woman who is unable to defend herself (Scruggs passed away in 2001, at age 44). This depiction was so offensive to Scruggs’s former media outlet, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the heads of the newspaper have lodged a formal complaint.
Lavely & Singer, a Los Angeles-based law firm representing the publication, sent a letter on Monday to Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, and Warner Bros. Studios, demanding they “publicly acknowledg[e] that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” and furthermore, that they “add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”
Olivia Wilde, who directed the acclaimed teen comedy Booksmart earlier this year, has defended her portrayal of Scruggs, claiming that she thinks it’s “a shame” the character “has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film.”
She went on to paint the backlash to the character as an attack on women.
“It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious, sexlessness,” she told Variety in the same interview. “It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”
(After her comments were received poorly online, Wilde eventually added on Thursday afternoon that she “did not have a say in how the film was ultimately crafted,” and also clarified her remarks about Scruggs’ sexuality.)
Having read Wilde’s initial defense before seeing the movie, I wondered if perhaps there was additional texture to the role missing from the criticism. Could more layers to the character justify the wildly irresponsible leap in artistic license of making Scruggs trade sex for a story?
No, as it turns out: there could not.
To reduce this version of Scruggs to “one inferred moment in the film” would actually be doing it a favor. She is an over-the-top cartoonish villain, missing only the mustache to twirl. Scruggs’s two traits are relentless sexual aggression and unprofessionalism. Within 10 seconds of her introduction, she declares to her editor that she’s “getting my tits done,” and two scenes later, when Hamm’s character declines to dance with her at a concert because he’s on duty, she says, “Fuck duty.” After the deadly bomb goes off, Scruggs literally prays to God that she finds the perp before anyone else does and that he’s “fucking interesting,” lest we be uncertain about her value system. Later, she illegally sneaks into the backseat of a lawyer’s parked car and surprises him like a horror-movie monster, and in a scene where she convinces editors to run her story about Jewell without concrete corroboration, Eastwood frames her eyes in sinister shadows from the window blinds as she says, “Goddamn it, John, these are our Olympics.”
Not exactly a good look for journalists.
Of course, there’s not much to lose in maligning the media these days. We’re deep into the tenure of the Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required era. In 2016, the year America elected a media-bashing candidate as president, trust in the U.S. media dropped to a low of 32%. (It was at 54% just 13 years earlier.) Villainizing journalists is a bipartisan issue both sides can largely get behind, which is probably why Eastwood decided to do it. The fact that part of his characterization involves a sexist trope, though, combines media-bashing with female degradation, so prominent in a time when women are routinely dragged through the mud in order to prop up powerful men accused of sexual misconduct.
When the Associated Press asked Eastwood specifically about the backlash to Scruggs’s character inciting a sexual quid pro quo with an FBI agent, here’s what the director had to say:
“I think the Atlanta Journal (sic) probably would be the one group that would be sort of complexed about that whole situation because they are the ones who printed the first thing of there being a crime caused by Richard Jewell. And so they’re probably looking for ways to rationalize their activity. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t—never discussed it with anyone from there.”
It’s a tour de force of whataboutism. Eastwood refuses to address the issues pertaining to his own actions, punting focus instead to other actions that he feels justify them. If anything, he’s admitting that he felt he could portray the character Kathy Scruggs in any light he damn well pleased after what she did to Richard Jewell. However, what happened to Jewell has more to do with the FBI focusing too hard on one suspect without any supporting evidence, and the fact that this information leaked. That’s an authoritarian failing, not one of the Fourth Estate.
For its part, Warner Bros. Studios has opted to back up Eastwood, and even echoed his language.
“It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast,” a representative wrote in response to the AJC‘s formal complaint, in a letter obtained by Variety.
If there’s a Trumpian ring to all this, perhaps it’s not a coincidence. While Eastwood has stopped short of calling himself a Trump supporter in the past, he certainly seems to have internalized the president’s animosity toward the media and his argumentative strategy. In fact, the far-right publication the Washington Examiner seems convinced that Eastwood is using the Trump playbook to troll the liberal media (i.e., me) into helping promote his movie, which is not entirely far-fetched.
Whether the depiction of Kathy Scruggs as unethical succubus is an intentional act of hostility toward women and journalists in hopes of creating controversy, or merely a symptom of the current climate, it’s further proof that some people will always defend anything if it suits their agenda. Even if they only have half the information.