Warner Bros. Calls Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ‘Richard Jewell’ Legal Claims ‘Baseless’

Studio defends film, saying that it’s “based on a wide range of highly credible source material”

richard jewell clint eastwood quid pro quo
"Richard Jewell" / Warner Bros.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and editor Kevin Riley are threatening the producers and filmmakers of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” over its accusations of “malicious fabrications” in the film, according to a legal demand sent Monday that was obtained by TheWrap.

The letter from the law offices of Lavely & Singer accused the filmmakers as acting “recklessly” and “engaging in constitutional malice” due to the film’s portrayal of the newspaper and AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs (as played by Olivia Wilde). The paper demands that the filmmakers issue a public statement that acknowledges they took dramatic and artistic licenses with the story, and that a prominent disclaimer is added to the film.

“We’re simply asking that the producers issue a statement acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes, and that artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” Riley said in a statement to TheWrap. “In addition, we’re requesting a disclaimer to that effect be added to the film’s credits.”

On Monday afternoon, Warner Bros. issued a statement saying the film was based “on a wide range of highly credible source material.”

“There is no disputing that Richard Jewell was an innocent man whose reputation and life were shredded by a miscarriage of justice,” the statement read. “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. ‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name. The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”

Riley and the AJC first challenged the accuracy of Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” ahead of the movie’s premiere at the AFI Film Festival last month. At the time, Riley had not seen the film ahead of its world premiere, but he has since seen the movie and reiterates many of his initial complaints in the legal demand.

The AJC said that the movie suggests that Scruggs, who died in 2001, is written as someone who gets story tips in exchange for sexual favors with an FBI agent and behaved unethically and recklessly. Riley initially said that there is no evidence to suggest that Scruggs engaged in such content, and in the legal letter, Riley adds that there is no claim in Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article on which the film is based that says she unethically traded sex for information.

“For a film that purports to be about the besmirching of someone’s reputation to proceed to smear Ms. Scruggs and the paper she reported for in this matter is highly offensive,” the letter reads. “It is also highly defamatory. This false portrayal of AJC’s supposed reporting methods is extraordinarily damaging to the AJC and its reputation.”

“Richard Jewell” is the story of a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who was wrongfully accused of being a terrorist in connection with a bombing at Centennial Olympic Park. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) had discovered a backpack filled with explosives and was initially deemed a hero for helping to evacuate attendees and alert law enforcement, but he was later considered a suspect before finally being cleared.

The paper stresses that its reporting was legally adjudicated as being “substantially true at the time they were published” and that the AJC even sought retraction in Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece of other statements that said the AJC’s reporting was false.

It further goes on to state that the AJC was pivotal in leading to the exoneration of Jewell, saying that the FBI’s version of the facts would have been logistically impossible for Jewell to have made. The letter said that the story pointing out inconsistencies in the FBI’s investigation was run on the front page of the paper and helped to shift the direction of the FBI’s investigation. However, the letter also said the film omits this detail and “substitutes that true fact with a false and fictional narrative in which Mr. Jewell’s lawyer (not the AJC’s reporters) is depicted unearthing the logistical problems.”

The letter continued, saying that the filmmakers met with the paper and with an editor who worked with Scruggs, but that information the filmmakers gleaned from the meeting went against the movie’s established narrative was not considered.

“It is evident the meeting was a mere pretext and that any information that deviated from or was inconsistent with the film’s planned thesis was ignored,” the letter stated. “Such conduct evidences purposeful avoidance of the truth, supporting a finding of constitutional malice.”

Eastwood directed the film from a screenplay by Billy Ray based on a magazine article by Brenner. “Richard Jewell” opens in theaters Dec. 13.

Read the full letter from the AJC here.