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Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell' had promise. Why'd he have to spoil it with falsehoods?

In a movie, you have to keep things interesting. But does that have to include making up damaging details about a real person?

James Alan Fox Opinion columnist
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Dec. 18,2019 | Updated 1:11 p.m. ET Dec. 18,2019

I was really looking forward to seeing Clint Eastwood's new film, "Richard Jewell," released Friday, about the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the security guard who was falsely believed to be responsible for killing one woman and injuring over 100 others. It promised to serve as an important reminder against the rush to judgement and the often prejudiced court of public opinion. At the same time, it would reinforce the idea that random violence and terrorism are hardly a new concern.

However, my anticipation has greatly diminished following revelations about a certain artistic license taken in the film. Just as Jewell was mercilessly mistreated by the press and the public, so too was Eastwood reckless in his characterization of a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, who is depicted offering sexual favors in exchange for a scoop.

Making up damaging, false stories about real people isn't wise

Although this form of unethical conduct is not unheard of in cases involving highly competitive news gathering, it was apparently added to the plot for dramatic appeal. Moreover, dead people don't have the same privacy rights as the living, and that reporter is not around to defend her reputation and good name.

Over the past few decades, the true crime genre has grown in popularity, with countless books and movies telling tales of murder and mayhem. Even crimes that are inherently fascinating are often embellished for the sake of entertainment value and, of course, profit.

Recall for example the 1992 television movie "Overkill," starring Jean Smart as Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The film portrayed a middle-age family man who, after soliciting sex from Wuornos, was fatally shot by her. The dead man's words and actions, as depicted in the film, were invented by screenwriters. The dead man was, for obvious reasons, unable to testify, and the only other witness to what actually took place the assailant herself wouldn't have been able to provide the most trustworthy testimony, to put it mildly. The lurid encounter, however it unfolded, was in all likelihood mortifying for the victim's family, and Hollywood's "build your own adventure" approach to their tragedy no doubt caused them further pain.

Even not-so-innocent people can be abused in storytelling. Years ago during a prison visit, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi complained to me about how one true crime author had made up dialogue between him and his accomplice and even contrived his private thoughts. Bianchi had committed the crimes but not necessarily in the manner described in the book.

When the lines are blurred, who's to say what's real and what's not?

Of course, books and films about crimes and other historical developments often concede from the outset that they are only based on or inspired by real people and events. Unfortunately, many readers and viewers are unable or just too lazy to be appropriately discerning and critical in their consumption of entertainment. Moreover, when it comes to television, viewers often fail to appreciate the shift from truth to fiction as the evening programming lineup moves from news broadcasts right into prime-time dramas.

Even smart people can be confused. In a prepared speech delivered decades ago, then-Gov. Hugh Carey of New York identified Jane Pittman as a heroic woman in the struggle for racial justice in America. Ernest J. Gaines' "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" remains a truly outstanding book, but it can only be found in the fiction section of your local bookstore or Amazon account. I don't mean to suggest that Carey was singularly foolish in this blunder; after all, the story (including the CBS adaptation for television) seemed very realistic.

So, in this clash between the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (along with its parent company Cox Enterprises) and film director Clint Eastwood, I firmly side with the newspaper. Although embellishment and exaggeration are normally acceptable when writing or scripting about actual events, extra care is required not to defame or gratuitously embarrass innocent people or institutions. Offering a global disclaimer about certain events being changed for dramatic appeal is insufficient when those changes disparage people, be they alive or dead.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox.