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The Fictional Journalism of ‘Richard Jewell’ and ‘Bombshell’

One villainizes a late Atlanta journalist, while the other celebrates the women of Fox News. The notably weird approaches to their characterizations raise the question of why Hollywood struggles to properly portray female reporters.

Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

If your only exposure to female journalists came through watching movies and television, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re nefarious, sex-crazed trash raccoons. The trope of the unethical lady reporter is enduring and annoying. I recently spent weeks watching every movie about journalism I could, and I was miffed by how often the lady-reporter characters slept with people to get ahead—very, very often.

Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood’s latest film, released last Friday, features another of these characters. Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, the journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who reported an item about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking at security guard Richard Jewell as a suspect in the July 1996 bombing of Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympics. In the film as in life, Jewell was an innocent man who went through a hellish trial by media after he was publicly named as the target of the ultimately misguided investigation. (He was exonerated in the fall of 1996; he died in 2007.)

In most ways, Richard Jewell hews closely to the historical record, lightly fictionalizing the torturous experience Jewell went through after he turned from hero to suspect in the eyes of the public following the attack. It is the latest installment in Eastwood’s series of films dramatizing the plight of recent real-life American male heroes, including Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, and American Sniper. Played by Paul Walter Hauser, the movie’s Jewell is a pathetic but well-intentioned law enforcement fanboy whose act of bravery is tainted by unfair villainization in the press. This characterization is consistent with the movie’s source material, a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner called “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” It’s a heart-wrenching depiction of an unfairly maligned man, told with clear respect and generosity for its subject from the filmmaker.

The characterization of Scruggs is different, and the opposite of generous. She slinks and cackles her way through the film, tossing her ’90s chunky-highlight hair over her Versace-blouse-clad shoulder like a demonic Erin Brockovich. After the bomb goes off, she callously quips about how she hopes the guy who did it is, at least, “fucking interesting.” When Jon Hamm’s skeevy FBI agent tells her that the bureau is investigating Jewell, she growls, “that fat fuck still lives with his mother,” as though his proto-incel vibes made him obviously guilty. Then she sleeps with the agent in exchange for the tip. Then she breaks into and hides inside Jewell’s lawyer’s car to pressure him into talking to her. While pressuring her boss into running the poorly sourced story, she insists that the networks already have it and then appeals to his competitive side: “These are our Olympics!” Oh, and she also cajoles a male coworker into doing the actual story writing for her, because on top of everything else, she’s just fully bad at her job. It’s a cartoonish performance, and one that has understandably horrified people who knew Scruggs.

In real life, Kathy Scruggs was never accused of sleeping with subjects or sources, and was a flawed but well-respected reporter. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just released a profile contextualizing her career there; Scruggs died in 2001 and is thus unable to defend her own legacy. The AJC has asked Warner Bros. to add a disclaimer to the film to make it clear that the real-life Scruggs did not trade sex for tips; its lawyers called the movie “entirely false and malicious.” Warners instead issued a statement calling the AJC’s claims “baseless.” While Wilde’s version of Scruggs is the latest in a long line of cinematic female reporters who have sex with subjects or sources, joining figures like Sally Field’s Megan Carter in the 1981 film Absence of Malice to Amy Schumer’s Amy Townsend in 2015’s Trainwreck, this is the first time the depiction of a real-life journalist has been viewed as an out-and-out smear. Wilde’s careening, preening “Scruggs” has perhaps the most in common with Meyl Streep’s “Susan Orlean” from 2002’s Adaptation, as Streep’s character was also based on a real-life, respected female journalist, the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and remade into a slutty shrew. In Adaptation, “Susan Orlean” goes way off the rails, having a torrid, druggy affair with her subject and then attempting to kill the screenwriter adapting her book. The crucial difference, however, is that of tone and consent—Adaptation is a self-referential comedy, transforming the real Orlean into a distorted and monstrous version of herself clearly not meant to accurately represent the real writer, and Orlean was alive to agree to the deliberately false depiction.

The strangest element about this brouhaha is how avoidable it was, how superfluous to the actual narrative Eastwood wanted to correct. The story of Richard Jewell would’ve worked exactly as well without transforming Kathy Scruggs into an amoral knob goblin; if anything, Jewell’s plight might have been even more tragic if the film had shown a journalist scrupulously doing her job and causing harm anyway. It’s a wildly unnecessary fictionalization—like if Clint had inexplicably decided to make the geese in Sully racist.

Kevin Riley, the editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called Richard Jewell’s treatment of Kathy Scruggs “offensive and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era.” He’s right—but it’s not the only offensive, deeply troubling portrayal of female journalists released last week. Bombshell, Jay Roach’s film about how the women of Fox News helped bring down its longtime leader Roger Ailes, could be described in the same way, but for a very different reason. While Richard Jewell is bogged down by its hostile lack of sympathy for its female reporter character, Bombshell is a sour viewing experience because it is too resolutely in the corner of its trio of Fox News blonds.

The three women at the center of Bombshell are portrayed as rebels who gain the courage to buck a corrupt institution from within. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) kicks things off by filing suit against Ailes (John Lithgow) for sexual harassment; Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) spends most of the film debating whether she should reveal that Ailes harassed her as well; young composite character Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) endures harassment from the bottom of the power structure.

As the film is based on the real-life Ailes ouster and several high-profile lawsuits, it’s hardly a spoiler to note that the women do ultimately speak up about their mistreatment in the end and see their decisions to fight sexual harassment bring about satisfying change in the workplace. While their extreme right-wing ideological viewpoints are touched upon, it’s a light and forgiving touch, and all three are the film’s imperfect but celebrated protagonists. Megyn Kelly’s “Santa is white” tirade gets brief screen time, for example, and her infamous softball interview with President Donald Trump is shown as a cowed misstep. But her story line is one about discovering an inner moral reserve and fighting the man, and Theron plays her as hard-edged but essentially well-intentioned, doing her best in a toxic environment.

How is it that this rarest of things—a movie with obvious affection for its female journalist characters, portraying them as flawed but ultimately principled—is about Megyn “Blackface” Kelly? I felt watching it how I imagine a clown might feel if they heard that there was finally going to be a movie that portrayed clowns as nice and not scary and then somehow the protagonist was John Wayne Gacy anyway.

This all might sound like I yearn for all movies about female journalists to be all-lady All the President’s Men reboots, or that I have some aversion to art about assholes, or require entertainment to be didactic and spiritually instructive and politically coherent. I don’t; that sounds abominably boring! (I do, however, think the “whorish woman reporter” trope is tired and more than a little disheartening.) My uneasiness with these two particular movies stems from their choices to portray actual female journalists to suit their preferred narratives at the expense of accurate characterizations, and how those choices weaken the films themselves.

Bombshell could have worked had it been several degrees nervier and nastier, more satirical and less insistent on softening propagandists into crusading mommies with an ogre for a boss who just happen to spend their days polluting the national discourse with objectively vile conspiracy theories and racist conjecture. The degrading influence Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson had—very recently!—on the American conversation doesn’t make them unlikely feminist icons worthy of begrudging respect. It makes them repulsive people who happened to do the right thing in the middle of doing a bunch of wrong things.

Robbie’s Kayla, an evangelical Christian associate producer who must endure sexual harassment and coercion from Ailes as she tries to become on-air talent, is central to the film’s most harrowing and moving scene, when Ailes forces her to lift her skirt, inch by inch, as she struggles to remain calm. The invented scene is genuinely horrifying, but also serves as a reminder that the insertion of Kayla into the script is a way to make the concept of Fox News heroines more palatable to an audience that might recoil at Kelly and Carlson. A closeted queer aspiring anchor with a sweet demeanor, the low-powered, optimistic Kayla is the most relatable of the three women, even as she trots out her xenophobic right-wing bona fides. (She adores Megyn’s “Santa is white” stance and lobbies to bring hardline immigration views onto the network.) Bombshell uses Kayla, as well as Kate McKinnon’s closeted liberal lesbian character (another invention), as sympathy generators. They are relatively sympathetic—and mostly invented. (Kayla is a composite character, representing at least 20 people, some of whom spoke to the filmmakers under conditions of anonymity because they are bound by nondisclosure agreements.) Splicing a somewhat likable fake person into a story about a conflict between real and decidedly hard-to-like people fundamentally changes the narrative dynamic into a more digestible affair for non-MAGA audiences.

Roger Ailes’s abuse was horrific. No one deserved it. Kelly and Carlson did the right thing by speaking out against him. They also spent decades assisting Ailes in corroding the American conversation and spreading disinformation to the public, and Bombshell hand-waves their entrenched complicity in a truly damaging and contemptible project in favor of framing them as reluctant figureheads of modern pop-cultural feminism. The film’s stance on the Fox News women is not unique; plenty of mainstream ink has been devoted to praising them for their moments of decency from within the Fox swamp, even before their testimony against Ailes. In The New Yorker, for example, Emily Nussbaum lauded Kelly as “an unlikely feminist warrior purified by her struggle to say things that no one else will” in 2016. This is very much the attitude Bombshell takes toward its leading lady.

But praising Megyn Kelly because she’s not always as bad as her Fox News cohorts isn’t big-hearted or open-minded; it’s cynical. And while Bombshell is well-acted, clever, and frequently funny, it’s a wildly cynical film. Kelly built her career on race-baiting invective at a company known for hateful invective, and when she tried to go mainstream she ended up getting fired (with a mighty $30 million golden parachute) for continuing to do so outside the halls of Fox. She has not been purified, and she is an asshole. There could be an interesting movie made about her, I’m sure, but this soft-blurred tale ain’t it. This is a movie that wants its audience to like its protagonists; this is why, for instance, it has Kelly deliver a droll voice-over breaking down Fox’s modus operandi, and why Carlson is seen almost constantly doting on her children. There’s that old screenplay directive, “save the cat”—the idea that you need to have a character do stuff to make the audience like them. But when your characters are based on morally bankrupt living people, there’s something repellent about bathing them in such warm light.

Bombshell nails Ailes with Lithgow’s performance; he wasn’t some one-dimensional monster, he was charming and funny and sometimes kind while also simultaneously being an abusive, lecherous menace. Why not give the women of Fox News an equally honest portrayal? It would make for a harder-edged movie, but it would ultimately be easier to swallow.

Kathy Scruggs did not deserve the treatment Richard Jewell gave her. But Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson do not deserve the treatment they receive in Bombshell, either. Female journalists are poorly served when movies lean into the slutty-reporter cliché. But everyone is poorly served when propagandists get collapsed into pillars of female empowerment simply by dint of their victimhood and celebrity. I’ve been asking myself which film’s inappropriate characterization bothered me more, but maybe that’s the wrong question. While there are some rare exceptions, like Rachel McAdams portraying real-life Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer in 2015’s Spotlight, it’s much easier to find examples of movies that get female reporters wrong than right. Maybe I should be posing a more basic question. Why is it so hard for Hollywood to portray a female journalist realistically? I’d like to see that story broken.