Monday, March 9, 2020

Bombshell (2019): A Review (Review #1360)


Bombshell takes a cue from Vice in two ways: by attempting to be too clever for this kind of story and in its hatred for its subject. The story of the fall of Fox News head Roger Ailes and the women who brought him down should be an interesting, gripping one. As told by Bombshell, however, it veered towards parody and spite with only passing glimpses into what might have and should have been.

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) finds herself in the cross-hairs of presidential candidate Donald Trump but gets little support or help from her colleagues, all male. Another female Fox anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), endures the casual sexism of Fox News itself along with the overall stupidity of its viewers. Then there's newcomer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), whom can be best described as a "Christian bimbo". She's eager to be an on-camera anchor but needs an in, something that her Fox News bestie, closeted liberal Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon) isn't.

That in is Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), Fox News CEO. Ailes rules Fox with an iron fist, vociferously correcting even the slightest error. He watches everything on Fox News and makes clear what he likes and dislikes. He likes Kayla, enough to make her do a twirl and show him her undies to potentially get an advance on her career. After this and after Carlson's firing, the dominoes begin to fall. What side will Kelly fall on? She hasn't spoken out one way or another, but eventually she will have to make a fateful decision: Roger or the 22 victims of sexual harassment, one of whom is Kelly herself?

Image result for bombshell 2019Curiously, the three principals in Bombshell don't actually share the screen until 48 minutes into the film, a curious decision given the film is one hour and 48 minutes long, and even that is for the briefest of moments with virtually no interaction. For an important story like Bombshell, particularly with regards to a rampant culture of sexual harassment and sexism, Bombshell spends most of its time making the case that Fox News is a nuthouse.

That it may be, but Bombshell should be about the horrors the women went through, not about how awful Fox News is.

I'll be blunt: I have no problem or issue saying that Fox News is a mouthpiece for now-President Trump and the Republican Party, a de facto propaganda machine. I also have no problem or issue saying that MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times and many film and television production companies today are mouthpieces for the Democratic Party and "the Resistance", equally de facto propaganda machines. Why can't both sides admit that neither deals with actual truth but instead deals with using the veneer of news/information to promote a particular agenda? It's hardly a scandal or even a sin to acknowledge reality. Therefore, the few times I watch Fox News or MSNBC, I do not react with horror or outrage but with a recognition that both sides drink from the same poison.

Image result for bombshell 2019
That may be a reason why Bombshell is not particularly good, but not the sole reason. The primary reasons are Charles Randolph's screenplay and Jay Roach's direction. This is where the Vice comparisons come in. With regards to Randolph's script, there is no subtlety in its disdain or hatred for Fox News. From sharing that Ailes agrees with whatever nuttiness then-candidate Trump believes to having Kayla say should outlandish things as "Fox is how we do church", Bombshell seems to think it is about the network itself versus the culture of sexism that permeates it. Even worse, Bombshell decides to open with Kelly not only doing voiceover but addressing us directly to tell us All About Fox. Why Carlson at one point looks at the camera and gives the viewers an almost knowing look of sarcasm I can't guess at.

A more straightforward telling of the story might have done wonders in shaping our sympathies, but when one character defends her lunch by saying "Sushi's not liberal food", it all but begs for us to not take anything it says seriously. I think at least twice we were told "You don't want to be gay and work at Fox," which should come as a surprise to someone like openly gay conservative Guy Benson.

For a film that wants to tell us about truth, Bombshell seems dead-set on making things almost a joke. Roach keeps using unsteady zooms when characters are speaking. I figure this is to give it a "you are there" feel, but it not only proves distracting but comical. At one point during Kayla's nervous tirade after flopping with Bill O'Reilly, she talks about the Fox News logo and how it had to spin because some viewers kept it on Fox so long it burned into their television screens. That such things are irrelevant to Bombshell is already bad enough, but that we had to literally see it on screen seems downright bonkers.

Image result for bombshell 2019Bombshell does itself no favors with the performances. Credit should be given where it's due: Theron does a great impersonation of Kelly with her voice and looks. She also has a wonderful moment when she finally gives her deposition, the shock and sadness of being "Witness W" making her see the depth of Ailes' behavior palpable. However, it is not a performance. It's an imitation; a good, skilled impersonation but an imitation nonetheless. Kidman managed the impossible: it made Gretchen Carlson almost unsympathetic, someone eager to leave this madhouse and as openly disdainful of her audience as possible. When the online poll showed the majority of viewers disagreed with her gun control views, she looked inches away from yelling at the screen. Robbie had one good moment when she tearfully admitted to Carr over the telephone that she had performed oral sex on Ailes, but apart from that her Kayla came across as an airhead. That, I would argue, is more the fault of the script, which seemed to have almost an open hatred for the character than the performance itself. 

Lithgow came across the best as Ailes, managing to find a semblance of humanity within the sleazy, paranoid CEO. Oddly, his Ailes seemed almost sensible when it came to his ideas about what viewers want to see. "Frighten. Titillate," he thunders, making a more succinct case for the maxim, "If it bleeds, it leads".

Other performances were shockingly bad. Allison Janney's Susan Estrich and Richard Kind's Rudy Guiliani would as if they'd accidentally wandered off bad Saturday Night Live skits (and as a side note, SNL is also de facto propaganda for the Democratic Party as well). People know who Guiliani is, but how many viewers would instinctively know who Susan Estrich is? Similarly, while the "blink-and-you'll-miss-them" appearances by O'Reilly, Gerardo Rivera and Sean Hannity impersonators are good impersonations, why are they even there?

The good elements in Bombshell are undercut by cartoonish impersonations, a script refusing to give two-dimensional characters let alone three-dimensional and some odd choices. We don't know why Judge Jeanine Pirro (Alana Ubach) stays loyal to Ailes or why the Murdochs hate him. Having the Murdoch Brothers play a little dominoes while discussing the Ailes lawsuit is a bit too much.

Bombshell has an important story to tell but bungles it. Hopefully when the filmmakers do a follow-up on the falls of Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, they'll improve.


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