In the latter half of his career, legendary actor Clint Eastwood has worked primarily as a director focused on realistic, often hard-hitting stories. This holiday season he delivers an exciting film drawn from an unlikely source: RICHARD JEWELL.
Based on a true story, Eastwood's drama stars up-and-coming actor Paul Walter Hauser in the title role as a security guard who discovers a plot to bomb the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta – only to have the FBI accuse him of planting the bomb himself. We want to look back at the story that made headlines around the world in 1996, to explore how the true story of Richard Jewell informs Clint Eastwood’s new film.
We turn back to July 1996. The Summer Olympics had taken over Atlanta, Georgia. The games were held in Centennial Olympic Park, a custom-designed swatch of 22 acres on the west side of downtown Atlanta. Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to flock to the park to watch the games and festivities, which had begun eight days earlier.
On July 27, halfway through the games, Richard Jewell, a 33-year-old security guard employed by AT&T, was patrolling the event grounds. While making his security rounds, Jewell discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs hidden underneath a bench. Jewell quickly informed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and worked to evacuate the area.
Meanwhile, the FBI had been alerted that a man had called 911, warning of the impending explosion, about 18 minutes before the bomb Jewell found was set to detonate. As Jewell and other security guards tried to evacuate the spectators, the bomb squad arrived to investigate the backpack. The bombs went off just two or three minutes into the evacuation, killing one woman. A cameraman rushing to the scene died as a result of a heart attack. And while Jewell and his fellow guards managed to safely evacuate the majority of the spectators, 111 people were injured by the blast. Richard Jewell's life changed forever.
At first, Jewell was hailed as a hero for alerting authorities to the bomb and helping to evacuate and save thousands of people. Just three days after the bombing, however, a local Atlanta paper revealed that Jewell was a "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation. The agency had developed a criminal profile pointing toward a "lone bomber," and Jewell evidently fit the description.
Over the following weeks, media outlets and news networks looked into Jewell’s life, trying to find similarities between him and the FBI’s profile of the bomber. The general belief was that Jewell had planted the bomb himself so that he could pretend to find it and become a hero. Jewell was mocked on late-night television and the public widely believed him to be the bomber, resulting in what he would later call a "trial by media" in which he was labeled guilty with little to no evidence and without a court trial.
Months later, in October, Jewell was formally cleared of any involvement in the Olympic Centennial Park bombing, but the damage had been done. In the years that followed, Jewell became a police officer and sued various news corporations for libel. In 2005, a man named Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to a series of bombing attacks, including the bomb in the Olympic Centennial Park. Nearly a decade later, Jewell was cleared once and for all. He passed away just two years later, in 2007, at the age of 44.
Jewell’s story inspired an acclaimed feature published in Vanity Fair magazine in 1997, which serves as the basis for Clint Eastwood’s RICHARD JEWELL. The feature told Jewell’s side of the story and explored the failures of reporting that affected Jewell's life.
For his film, Eastwood enlisted Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) and rising star Paul Walter Hauser. The actor had previously delivered a scene-stealing performance in I, TONYA, another biographical drama about a prominent figure victimized by media bias: Tonya Harding. With the help of an all-star cast that includes Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and Olivia Wilde, Eastwood sheds light on a moment in history that has almost been forgotten and a hero who never got the recognition he deserved.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.