Clint Eastwood’s new film reinstated the security guard’s “hero” status, whose life was shattered by accusations that he bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the director and the stars announced on Wednesday.
“Richard Jewell” tells the story of an innocent man who found himself at the center of a terrorist investigation and a devastating media storm following the summer blast that left two dead and more than 100 injured.
The former policeman was hailed as a hero after spotting the Centennial Olympic Park bomb, saving hundreds of people, but was quickly identified by reporters as an FBI suspect.
“He never had the benefit of being innocent until proven guilty,” Eastwood told reporters on the red carpet of his world premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
Jewell was “prejudiced before the knowledge is really there,” added the 89-year-old director.
Never arrested or charged, Jewell was acquitted by the FBI after 88 days. But TV stations camped outside his home for a long time, chasing Jewell and his family.
He has become the subject of wild speculation and ridicule. Jewell had returned to his mother’s house in her thirties after being demoted for crushing her police car.
Jewell has sued several media for defamation, claiming that their reports described him as a person with a strange and probably guilty personality.
Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno apologized after baptizing Jewell “Unadoofus”, a pun of the notorious murderer “Unabomber”.
“He did not deserve it, he was a real hero and he was tried by the media before the facts became known,” said FBI agent Jon Hammon.
“It can happen again and it happens all the time, because the information travels even faster now,” warned the “Mad Men” star.
But the film itself has already sparked controversy.
Kathy Scruggs, the true journalist of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), who for the first time identified Jewell as a suspect, is one of her main characters.
Scruggs, described by Olivia Wilde, is pictured trading with an FBI agent (Hamm) in exchange for learning the identity of the suspect.
In an email to AFP on Wednesday, newspaper editor Kevin G. Riley said Scruggs’ performance was “shocking and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era”.
“There is no evidence that this has happened before,” he wrote.
Riley also defended the newspaper’s sources of supply by writing that the Jewell inquiry was about to be made public and that later reports by AJC had exonerated Jewell.
The real culprit, Eric Rudolph, was arrested in 2003 after a series of bombings against abortion clinics and a gay disco. He was sentenced to life without parole two years later.
In 2007, Jewell died of natural causes at the age of 44.
“This is not a revisionist story,” said Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Jewell in the film. “We highlight the story and the truth.”