A year ago, two documentaries about the failed Frye Festival came out the same week. Currently in Atlanta, there is a film and a TV series about Aretha Franklin in production.
On Monday, Spectrum released 10 episodes of a series featuring Richard Jewell - the falsely accused security guard of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. This is just a few weeks after Clint Eastwood's major release of a film called "Richard Jewell."
The cable provider has about 26 million subscribers - 385,000 customers in Georgia. Locally, Spectrum is available in Athens, Buford, Covington, Duluth, Gainesville, Newnan, Roswell and Stockbridge. The series for now is otherwise unavailable for those without Spectrum subscriptions.
“Manhunt: Deadly Games” is set in Georgia and North Carolina but shot in Pittsburgh last year. The shooting schedule overlapped with that of Eastwood’s movie, which was shot in metro Atlanta.
"Manhunt" executive producer Andrew Sodroski - who has yet to see Eastwood's film - said metro Pittsburgh provided quicker access than Atlanta to forests that resembled the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. That's where enigmatic serial bomber Eric Rudolph (played by British actor Jack Huston) huddled for six years as a fugitive.
“The forests are a character,” Sodroski said, full of caves and ravines. “Eric hid out in the middle of nowhere. He knew that terrain and the FBI didn’t.”
The producers were otherwise able to faithfully re-create the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in an outdoor space in Pittsburgh, adding digital versions of Coca-Cola and CNN headquarters into the skyline.
The series opens with the park bombing. Jewell (played by Cameron Britton) becomes the lead suspect, fitting a "lone bomber" profile FBI had created, covering some of the same material Eastwood carved out.
"Manhunt" relies heavily on a 2007 book about Rudolph by Maryanne Vollers called "Lone Wolf" and her stash
from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The series also spends plenty of time with an ATF bomb investigator - a composite of actual bomb researchers - and a composite FBI agent.
Producers changed the timelines significantly so Jewell’s story and the chase for Rudolph overlap, which didn’t actually happen.
“We wanted to capture the true feelings by fictionalizing our timeline,” Sodroski said. “Also to make it more exciting. A lot of the manhunt involved sitting and waiting in the woods looking for Eric for years.”
The FBI cleared Jewell as a suspect three months after the bombing July 27, 1996. Another 14 months actually passed before Rudolph was identified as the likely Olympic bomber in February, 1998 and officially charged in October.
But “Manhunt” leaves Jewell as a suspect for several more months longer and even creates a fictional scene in episode three where Jewell shops at a grocery store and is kicked and spat on by a man who blames him for the bombing. (Sodroski said they added the scene for dramatic effect.)
Rudolph in January 1997 bombed a Sandy Springs abortion clinic and an Atlanta gay bar a month later. A Birmingham abortion bombing in early 1998 is made to appear in “Manhunt” as happening soon after the first two.
These changes make the FBI seem even less successful since they never actually arrest Jewell. They just tail him for months on end in “Manhunt.”
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/ Still Photographer
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/ Still Photographer
In reality, the FBI immediately tied the abortion clinic and gay bar bombings to the Olympic bombing because Jewell was already off their radar. In "Manhunt," FBI agent Jack Brennan (Gethin Anthony) is initially skeptical that there is any connection between the park bombings and the other ones. "Manhunt" proceeds to make Brennan in the first few episodes obnoxious, arrogant and overconfident.
“He’s one man,” Brennan tells a local North Carolina sheriff in episode No. 4, referencing Rudolph. “We’re the FBI.”
Brennan does get humanized later in the season as Rudolph’s years-long success at evading authorities turns him into a folk hero among those who distrust the government including the local militia. (Someone even wrote a song called “Run Rudolph Run.”)
“Brennan will be humbled,” Sodroski said. “He will rise to the occasion and grow as a human being in a really cool and beautiful way.”
The writers also changed the time line regarding Rudolph’s 911 call before the park bombing. It took only a few days for that 911 call to become public knowledge but in the series, it doesn’t happen for several months.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bill Rankin figured out that Jewell couldn't have made the call based on the time and distance from the bombing itself. In the series, it's Jewell himself who figures this out. He and his attorney in "Manhunt" go to Centennial Olympic Park to prove it. "It's not going to go away until I make it go away!" Jewell proclaims in "Manhunt."
Sodroski said he wanted to visually externalize what was happening to Jewell internally: “He was a walking apology. It was great to see him finally stand up for his rights.”
And he has no regrets: “Yes, we made it up. It was totally worth it. To me, it’s a totally thrilling, beautiful thing to watch.”
Carla Gugino ("Spy Kids") provides a more nuanced, fully formed take of AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, who broke the Jewell story, compared to Olivia Wilde's version in the Eastwood film.
“Manhunt” in the latter episodes explores the FBI’s often hapless efforts to catch the evasive Rudolph on his home turf. But Rudolph eventually became careless and was captured while dumpster diving in 2003. He is now spending the rest of his living days in ADX Florence Supermax prison with the likes of “Unabomber” TedKaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.
Sodroski said the series serves as a lesson in humility, about how false presumptions can impact lives.
“When we approach the truth and facts with an open mind, that is really a powerful thing,” he said. “It is the only thing that can save us from our own division in 2020. We often lack the humility to admit the other side is right sometimes and the facts don’t always support us. And the people who don’t look like us can often be more right, more correct.”
“Manhunt: Deadly Games,” available on demand Monday, February 3, 2020 for all Spectrum subscribers
About the Author
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years.