Another year, another movie implying women journalists routinely sleep with their sources for a scoop. The latest culprit is Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood’s film about the media frenzy surrounding the July 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the Atlanta Summer Olympics.
Eastwood’s film, based on Marie Brennan’s 1997 Vanity Fair story, “American Tragedy: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” has been getting Oscars buzz even as journalists fear the film might be buying into the “fake news,” ideology of the Trump administration. (A claim star Walter Hauser refuted in a recent tweet.) After Wednesday nights premiere in Los Angeles, however, another problematic element arose: Billy Ray’s script includes a scene heavily suggesting that journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) slept with FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm) for a story. (Though they are not explicitly depicted as having sex, it is reportedly heavily implied in dialogue and subtext.)
Scruggs was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who first broke the story that Richard Jewell (played by I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard who saved hundreds of lives when he alerted authorities that he had found a bomb on his rounds, was being considered as a suspect by the FBI. He was cleared of responsibility after 88 days of being relentless grilled, by which time he had already been vilified in the press. One year later, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno apologised to Jewell for the distress the ordeal had caused him. Jewell died in 2007, at the age of 44, from health complications.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, current Journal-Constitution editor-in-chief Kevin Riley has denied that the behaviour of the paper’s former employee depicted in the film. "There has never been any evidence that this is how Kathy got the story," he said. "This came out of the blue."
Riley reportedly saw a copy of the Ray’s script before filming began, but hoped that the scene wouldn’t appear in the final version. “At a time when journalism itself is under attack from a lot of corners, for a movie to fall into this kind of trope and reinforces a false stereotype — it is wrong," Riley told THR. "It is especially alarming to see it happening in Hollywood. If there is a place where there should be great awareness and sensitivity to how women are treated in their profession, it should be Hollywood."
Whether or not the portrayal is accurate, it definitely plays into a longstanding and tiresome sexist trope. Hollywood is littered with portrayals of female journalists sleeping with their sources for information, from Kate Mara in House of Cards, to Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and more recently, Amy Adams in Sharp Objects. Even baby angel Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) got dragged into this narrative in the Netflix reboot that must not be named.
It’s especially disappointing that Wilde, who made her directorial debut earlier this year with Booksmart, featuring a tender and careful portrayal of girlhood sexuality (the inclusion of which she’s had to defend), would then appear as a character perpetuating that stereotype. Refinery29 has reached out to Wilde for comment.
In a tweet, New York Times Carpetbagger Kyle Buchanan wrote: “For Olivia Wilde to follow BOOKSMART by playing a female reporter in RICHARD JEWELL who fucks for scoops and screams ‘Doesn’t get me hard!!’ at boring stories... well, choices were made.”
Critic Kristen Lopez also tweeted out her disappointment. “#RichardJewell has all the problems you expect from an Eastwood film in 2019. Olivia Wilde's character is particularly terrible. But Paul Walter Hauser. Is. Stupendous and Sam Rockwell is great.”
Richard Jewell is the latest in a long list of 2020 awards season films based on journalists’ relationships with their sources. Funnily enough, no one is suggesting that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reporter Lloyd Vogel (loosely based on real-life journalist Tom Junod) slept with Mr. Rogers. Hello neighbour, indeed.