News and Commentary

Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell’ Flops Amid Controversy
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 10: Clint Eastwood attends the "Richard Jewell" Atlanta Screening at Rialto Center of the Arts on December 10, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

The “get woke, go broke” axiom may yet to be disproven, but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies with inarguable conservative leanings (not to mention a conservative director) will automatically score a winning goal. Witness exhibit A: Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” performed disastrously this weekend despite reliably positive mainstream reviews and some heavy championing in conservative media circles.

According to Variety, “Richard Jewell” marked the worst opening for a Clint Eastwood movie in four decades, pulling in a dismal $5 million from 2,502 theaters.

“It’s a disappointing result for Eastwood, marking one of the worst nationwide openings of the 89-year-old’s directorial career,” the outlet reported. “His only movie to endure a worse fate was 1980’s ‘Billy Bronco’ with $3.7 million. Should ‘Richard Jewell’ come in ahead of expectations by even $200,000, that would propel it just barely above 1997’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ ($5.2 million) and 1999’s ‘True Crime’ ($5.2 million) in terms of Eastwood’s inaugural outings.”

Worse still, the movie is expected to lose tens of millions of dollars in North America due to its $45 million production budget. Predictions cap the film’s box office earnings somewhere in the $25 – $45 million range.

Richard Jewell became a national hero during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, when he discovered a bomb planted in Centennial Park. Risking his own life, Jewell successfully helped to evacuate the area, saving countless lives before the bomb detonated. As a result of his heroic feats, only one person died in the blast (a second person later died of a heart attack) while 111 people were injured.

Though first hailed for his triumphant efforts, things quickly turned sour for Jewell the moment the media learned that the FBI was investigating him as a potential suspect, believing he may have planted the bomb himself in order to gain notoriety. Leading up to its release, the film faced heavy scrutiny for portraying journalist Kathy Scruggs of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a salacious reporter willing to trade sex for news stories. Neither Warner Bros. nor Eastwood nor screenwriter Billy Ray presented evidence to support that portrayal.

Writing at Forbes, Scott Mendelson argued that the controversy over Scruggs (who died in 2001 and could not publicly defend herself) may not have exactly hampered the film’s box office chances.

“It has damaged the otherwise pretty good movie’s standing in terms of how it’s discussed in the media. Granted, it probably didn’t impact the box office, and its biggest shot at Oscar glory remains a Best Actor nod for Hauser,” wrote Mendelson.

Screenwriter Billy Ray has since accused the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) of capitalizing off the one moment in which Scruggs flirts with an FBI agent in order stifle the conversation.

“This movie is about a hero whose life was completely destroyed by myths created by the FBI and the media, specifically the AJC,” Ray told Deadline. “The AJC hung Richard Jewell, in public.”

“They editorialized wildly and printed assumptions as facts,” Ray said. “They compared him to noted mass murderer Wayne Williams. And this was after he had saved hundreds of lives. Now a movie comes along 23 years later, a perfect chance for the AJC to atone for what they did to Richard and to admit to their misdeeds. And what do they decide to do? They launch a distraction campaign. They deflect and distort. They focus solely on one single minute in a movie that’s 129 minutes long, opting to challenge one assertion in the movie rather than accepting their own role in destroying the life of a good man.”