‘Richard Jewell’ reviews: Paul Walter Hauser is ‘extraordinary,’ but what about the controversy?

Movies about Fox News, gambling addiction and Nazis opened on December 13, but arguably the weekend’s most controversial release turned out to be “Richard Jewell.” It’s Clint Eastwood‘s dramatization of the events of 1996 when the real-life title character saved lives during the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, but was later falsely accused of perpetrating the attack. But the controversy stems from how the film treats another real-life figure, journalist Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde). So what do critics think of the film overall, and its depiction of Scruggs in particular?

As of this writing the film is getting mostly positive notices, scoring 69 on MetaCritic based on 37 reviews counted thus far: 30 positive, 5 somewhat mixed, 2 negative. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, which classifies reviews simply as pass or fail as opposed to MC’s sliding scale from 0-100, the film has a freshness rating of 77% based on 115 reviews, 27 of which are negative. The RT critics’ consensus summarizes the reviews by saying, “‘Richard Jewell’ simplifies the real-life events that inspired it — yet still proves that Clint Eastwood remains a skilled filmmaker of admirable economy.”

Indeed, Eastwood is being praised for telling the story with “almost no unnecessary flourishes.” It’s “taut,” “streamlined,” “well-made” and “well-acted,” especially by Paul Walter Hauser, who is “extraordinary” in the title role. But while the film shows “empathy” for Jewell, it has been accused of the opposite in its treatment of Scruggs, who broke the story that Jewell was a suspect and whose villainous depiction here “shows particular vitriol.”

Specifically, the film suggests that Scruggs exchanged sex for information, which is “fabricated” according to the people who knew her. The paper she worked for, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, even demanded the filmmakers issue a disclaimer about her depiction. Like Jewell, Scruggs died long before the film was made, so “she’s no longer here to defend herself.”

In this story of the public’s rush to judgment against Jewell, does the film rush to judgment against Scruggs? And does that tarnish an otherwise well-received film? Thus far it has been named one of the 10 best films of the year by the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review, and Kathy Bates earned a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role as Jewell’s mother. And the last time Eastwood came under fire for his depiction of a true story, “American Sniper” (2014), he ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Check out some of the reviews below, and join the discussion on this and more with your fellow movie fans here in our forums.

Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly): “As a filmmaker, Eastwood may not be famed for subtlety, but he does have a way with economy. And he delivers Jewell’s story with almost no unnecessary flourishes; a taut, streamlined drama leavened by crucial doses of empathy. Though it’s hard to say whether the movie would work at nearly the level that it does without the extraordinary performance of Hauser.”

Inkoo Kang (Slate): “Despite its conventional framing, ‘Richard Jewell’ feels less like a biopic than an assertion of a worldview—a Reaganite one in which the most dangerous threats to well-meaning, ordinary-ish white guys like Jewell are big government and an unscrupulous media … But if the feds can’t imagine that Jewell doesn’t lead a second life as a domestic terrorist, Eastwood and Ray have apparent difficulty envisioning an inner life for their protagonist.”

Stephanie Zacharek (Time): “Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell’ — based on a true story — is a well-made, well-acted picture about a clear act of injustice against an innocent man … Here, Eastwood shows the utmost compassion for Richard Jewell, the wrongfully accused little guy. But his generosity stops there, and he shows particular vitriol and distaste for Scruggs … It’s telling that Eastwood makes her into the bigger cartoon, when she’s no longer here to defend herself.”

Alissa Wilkinson (Vox): “The film treats its two most important characters — both of whom died years ago — by very different standards … The movie’s stated goal is, like many of these films and TV shows, to tell the story from a different angle, reestablishing a more truthful record of what really happened. So what happened here with Kathy Scruggs? … according to people who knew Scruggs, the scene in which Scruggs seduces Agent Shaw for a story is fabricated.”

Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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