Richard Jewell – The true story behind the 1966 Atlanta Games bombing

Director/producer Clint Eastwood was intrigued enough to dramatize for the big screen the tragic story of Richard Jewell, a trusting man whose life was turned upside down by both the media and the law enforcement community he idolized.

On July 27, 1996, in the middle of the Atlanta Games, security guard Richard Jewell discovers a suspicious backpack, hidden under a bench, that is soon found to contain an incendiary device. With little time to spare, he helps evacuate the area, saving many lives and minimizing potential injuries. He is hailed a hero. But just three days later, the humble savior’s life unravels when he—and the world—learn he is the FBI’s prime suspect in the bombing.

What might read as the makings of a suspense thriller are not the imaginings of a creative mind, but were, in fact, the life-shattering reality for the real Richard Jewell.

Ironically, thanks to his selfless act, for 88 days, Jewell lived with an invasive FBI investigation, public scrutiny spurred by unrelenting press coverage, and the uncertainty that his name would ever be cleared, or his life ever be the same.

Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Richard Jewell, discusses a scene with director Clint Eastwood

“We often see stories about powerful people getting accused of something, but they have money, get the right attorney, and escape prosecution,” says Clint Eastwood. “I was interested in Richard Jewell’s story because he was the common man, the average person. He was never prosecuted, but he was in every way persecuted. There was this rush to judgement to accuse him, and he didn’t have any power to escape it and was, for a long time, too naively idealistic to see he needed to save himself. “

“That’s why I wanted to make this picture,” he continues, “to restore Richard’s honor. Because it’s the everyday guy—who wants to be a police officer, of all things, to devote himself to the betterment of mankind—who does this heroic thing and then pays a heavy price for it. He gets thrown to the wolves.” Whether or not the public at large is aware of Richard Jewell’s innocence, most today still refer to him as the Atlanta bomber, despite his having been cleared. “

“People don’t put it together,” the director adds. “They don’t connect that the real bomber showed up six years later, that he confessed, and that they got him. I hope audiences learn that from this picture, but that they also learn that, as a society, we can do better. If that’s a lesson Richard can give us, I think that’s great. That’s a hero.”

Eastwood’s production banner, Malpaso, had been circling the project for a few years.

In fact, says producer Tim Moore, “We were scouting for another project in Hawaii, and when I came back, Clint said, ‘You might want to take that Hawaiian shirt off; we’re going to Atlanta to do the Richard Jewell story. The time to make it is now, it’s a story that needs to be told.’ All of a sudden, we were in Atlanta prepping for production.”

Producer Jessica Meier adds, “Clint felt it was important because even though it happened over 20 years ago, it could still happen today. Anybody can be taken down in two seconds by a quick statement, true or not.”

The filmmakers sorted through a vast amount of research in determining the story they could tell within the framework of a single film.

“There was an amazing amount of information,” Meier relates, “but we focused on Richard’s point of view and his partnership with his attorney Watson Bryant—the first person apart from his mom to believe in him—because that’s what we found most compelling.”

Screenwriter Billy Ray

Screenwriter Billy Ray, who penned the script, says, “I’ve always wanted to write for Clint—I think every writer feels that way—but especially on a movie like this because it concerns the kinds of themes that Clint has been exploring his entire career: justice, the power dynamics of American law enforcement, the ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance. It was just a perfect marriage of director and material.”

BILLY RAY (Screenwriter) received Academy, BAFTA and Critics Choice award nominations for his script for Captain Phillips, and won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. His other feature credits include Terminator: Dark Fate; Gemini Man; Overlord; Secret in Their Eyes; The Hunger Games; State of Play; Breach, which he also directed; Flightplan; Suspect Zero; Shattered Glass, which he also directed; Hart’s War; Volcano; Hidden Assassin; and Color of Night. His television credits include the series The Last Tycoon and Earth 2, and the upcoming mini-series A Higher Loyalty, which he created and will also direct.

Ray based his work on a 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare—The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner.

Marie Brenner

The journalist, who was on-site in the aftermath and spent time with Richard, his mother, Bobi Jewell, and Watson Bryant, recalls, “In 1996, law enforcement was enthralled by the profiling theory, so amidst the frenzy that would have been going on at the bureau after the bombing, they looked at this very sweet, slightly oddball guy who found the device and thought, ‘Oh, it’s the lone bomber theory!’ It then became a witch hunt—a term that is overused in our culture but is the very definition of what happened to Richard; he and Bobi were under severe pressure and really coming undone. Then and now, our society is so quick to make assumptions about people based on how they look or how a series of actions appears from the outside, without trying to see inside someone’s heart.

“My time in Atlanta, and what happened to Richard, had a profound effect on me as a reporter,” she continues. “It is rare when a story inhabits you in this way and even rarer when you remain in contact with those you have reported on. Seeking justice for this man became a mission for me, to get their story told by a filmmaker of immense talent and in the most powerful way.”

When Brenner learned Eastwood was interested in telling the story for the big screen, she thought, “I was stunned and absolutely elated. It was, for me, an almost unimaginable fever dream that, 23 years after the bombing, an icon who cares so deeply about the rights of the unseen heroes among us had chosen to utilize his gifts to tell this story, to at long last bring justice to Bobi and Richard Jewell.”

Though there was no proof of wrongdoing, Jewell had several strikes against him, including the fact that he fit the FBI’s general profile and had discovered the device. Law enforcement compared him to criminals in similar, recent cases, and also learned that Jewell had made a few mistakes at his prior jobs and held that against him.

“Everybody wanted to solve the case and there was competition between the different outlets and agencies, to be first and foremost,” Eastwood notes.

“A lot of good organizations failed to handle things well when it was all first happening, and the dilemma was that if they didn’t get somebody quick and solve the case, the whole Games event would collapse, and they’d lose millions of dollars-worth of preparations that had already been made.”

Since Jewell was considered a suspect, he experienced public incrimination that, through the lens of history, has never been publicly reversed, despite being fully exonerated after those long, trying 88 days, and someone else ultimately confessing to the crime. Eastwood states, “This is a story that is both true, but also has suspense and somebody the audience can root for.”

Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the titular role in the film, states, “It’s an underdog story in a sense. Richard is a wannabe cop who has worked security and worked for a sheriff but has never really been respected the way he wants to be, the way he respects authority. This moment—when he saves the lives of hundreds of people at the Centennial Park concert—starts out as a moment of glory. He thinks he finally has earned that respect, though even then he remains self-effacing. But in a dark twist of fate, he’s put on the chopping block instead. Things go from bad to worse very quickly because he refuses to believe the police and the FBI won’t clear him, simply because he knows he’s not guilty.

Sam Rockwell immediately gravitated toward the character of independent, anti establishment lawyer Watson Bryant, and the relationship between him and Richard.

“Watson is the right fit for Richard as an attorney because he’s a father figure or an older brother archetype. There is friendship but also mentoring that goes on between them, and I think that relationship is the heart of the film, in a way.” Though in real life Richard eventually added to his legal team, Rockwell notes, “He started out with Watson, there was an emotional bond and Watson was always the guy that Richard and Bobi trusted.”

Watson Bryant and Sam Rockwell

Bryant, who is still alive and remains close with Bobi Jewell, reminded Rockwell of “something out of a Tennessee Williams play, a modern-day version of a sort of Old South character, very excitable and very opinionated. As you’ll see in the film, he wore these cargo shorts and a hat— he wasn’t really a suit-and-tie guy. I spent about seven hours with him and his wife the first day I got to Atlanta, interviewing him and having him record my lines. It was very useful in building the character for the film.”

Prior to heading to Georgia, Rockwell spent time with Hauser as well, in preparation for filming. “Paul and I got together in New York about ten days before shooting. We spent about three days together, inseparable, and read the script out loud. And we actually sat with the screenwriter, Billy Ray, had a coffee with him, and talked about the story. And then we met with my dialect coach, and we worked with her for a while on the different dialects. It was really beneficial for me and Paul to do that because we bonded, which I think you’ll sense on screen as well.”

Jon Hamm stars as Agent Tom Shaw of the FBI—not a real agent, but a fictionalized amalgamation of several who were there, created by the screenwriter to represent the agency’s zealous pursuit under stressful conditions. “What’s exciting to me about this story,” Hamm says, “is that it took place over 20 years ago, yet in today’s landscape it seems very relevant still. In 1996, when these events occurred, the 24-hour news cycle was pretty new, and the idea of everybody racing to break the story, to get the information out, was new as well. And now, we live in a time where that’s accelerated ad infinitum, where an internet connection is all it takes to tell the whole world within seconds how you feel and have that echo chamber start. That makes it hard for cooler heads to prevail. And in the film, I play one of the guys who gets it wrong.”

Clint Eastwood’s suspense drama Richard Jewell serves to finally reveal one man’s truth, one man who, after 88 agonizing days—not one spent in jail—understands what it is to be guilty until proven innocent.

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser

One of the filmmakers’ driving forces in bringing Richard Jewell’s story to the screen was that his mother, Bobi Jewell—who went through those same 88 days at his side—wanted her son’s story told, his name cleared of any wrongdoing, his heroics at long last memorialized. When she learned it would be Eastwood at the helm, and then Hauser in the role, she felt Richard was in good hands both behind and in front of the camera. Her dream would soon be a reality.

Hauser offers, “I think this story is important because we live in a society where people play judge, jury and executioner before all the facts are known. Richard was tried in the media, and because of that, all the hard work he had done in his life—going to the police academy, coaching baseball, being a thoughtful citizen—was reversed with a headline. I think it’s a bit of a reality check because we, today, haven’t really righted these wrongs. It’s still liable to happen to anyone. Hopefully, this film will make people careful about painting someone with a certain brushstroke, without acknowledging their humanity. Hopefully this film will serve to honor Richard’s humanity as well as his good deed.”

“Just a small amount of misinformation can turn someone’s life into a nightmare, and when the truth comes out, nobody wants to face it, and that’s a shame,” Eastwood states. “Because it’s never too late to celebrate our heroes, and if this picture gives Richard the recognition he deserves, I say it’s about time.”