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Bombshell
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not So Good For What Ailes You"
2 stars

At a time when most coming attractions previews for new movies seem to be going out of their way to give away as many of the big surprises, jokes and dramatic reveals of the films they are promoting as they can cram into two minutes or so, the trailer for “Bombshell” stood out because it gave away virtually nothing. If you did not know that it was supposed to be a cinematic depiction of the sexual harassment scandal that rocked Fox News in 2016 and led to the ousting of its seemingly invulnerable founder, Roger Ailes, nothing about the trailer—which consisted largely of leads Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie sharing an elevator with only three words exchanged between them—gave that away until the final moment when they got off and it was revealed that the building they were in was Fox News. Even if you did know what the film was supposed to be, nothing in the trailer gave away what kind of approach it would take to the story. Would it be a straightforward recreation of events that dominated the public consciousness a couple of years ago? Would it take those facts and spin them into some kind of audacious dark comedy that would tackle the horrors of sexual harassment in the way that “Dr. Strangelove” took on nuclear war? Would it try to transform the story into some kind of inspirational drama of people taking on an unjust system that would try to make heroes out of people who, in some complicated cases, may themselves not exactly deserve such celebration due to their own sins committed in the name of the very same entity they found themselves battling against?

When I first saw that trailer, I can’t say that I necessarily wanted to see yet another depiction of the lechery and general monstrousness of Roger Ailes—after all, the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice in the Room” seemed to have done a sufficient job of doing just that—but the air of mystery regarding its approach had me undeniably intrigued as to what the filmmakers were doing with it. Having actually seen “Bombshell” now, I am sorry to report that the obliqueness of the trailer seems to been borne out of the fact that the people who made it apparently never had a full grip on how they wanted to tell the story either and instead elected to flit between those approaches, as well as anything else that might have popped into their minds during the production, without ever figuring out a way to make them work as a cohesive whole. The end results is a real mess that has a story to tell but has no real idea of how to do it other than hammer home the more obvious points with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the ankles or attempt to dress up its confusion with a series of increasingly distracting familiar faces portraying other familiar faces as if the film were an elongated and more uneven than usual “SNL” cold opening.

The film centers around three Fox News employees at wildly different positions of prestige and influence at the network and how their toxic interactions with Ailes (John Lithgow) eventually lead to his downfall. At the top is Megyn Kelly (Theron), who is one of the biggest stars at the network and who, as the film opens, becomes a cause celebre even among non-Fox viewers when she opens up the 2015 Republican presidential debate hosted by the network with a pointed question to Donald Trump on his misogyny that led to him proving her point with ugly comments about her having her period. When she goes to meet with Ailes afterwards, there is, surprisingly, no blowback from the incident from him—as Ailes points out to her, owner Rupert Murdoch is not a Trump booster and while he is, he admits that it made for compelling television and was great for ratings. Of course, that doesn’t prevent her from getting bothered by zealous Trump supporters and the paparazzi and it is perhaps not surprising that a few weeks later, she does a one-on-one interview with Trump, whose candidacy has soared in the interim, that becomes such a softball piece that even her producer husband (Mark Duplass) chastises her for letting him off the hook.

On the opposite end of the Fox ladder is Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), an ambitious young woman who professes to be the surrogate for countless other Christian millennials and who years to one day get her own shot in front of the cameras. For now, she lands a job as part of the production staff for Bill O’Reilly’s show and winds up carrying on a clandestine affair with co-worker Jess (Kate McKinnon), who is not only a lesbian but—even more shocking—is a deeply closeted Hillary Clinton supporter who only took the job because Fox was the only broadcast entity that offered her a job. Jess shows Kayla the ins and outs of the tricky office politics and before long, Kayla manages to wrangle an impromptu meeting with Ailes where she hopes to pitch him on the idea of putting her on television. Ailes is charming—well, as charming as he can muster—and self-deprecating and offers her some solid advice. As the conversation goes on, things start to slowly turn—his request for her to do a turn in front of him sounds logical enough to hear it from him (“It’s a visual medium”) but then he starts insisting that she hike her already short skirt up higher and higher, all the while talking about the “loyalty” that he insists of from his employees, leaving little doubt as to how they, at least the female ones, can go about proving that loyalty.

Somewhere in the middle between Kelly and Kayla is Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who had once been as big of a star for the network as Kelly when she was the co-host of “Fox & Friends.” After being removed from that show and relegated to afternoon dead zone (where she still managed comparatively decent ratings), she was eventually fired for repeatedly complaining about the sexist atmosphere that permeated the network both behind the scenes and on the air. Now that she has been terminated, she and her lawyers hit upon the notion of suing Ailes—but not the network—for sexual harassment. This approach means that the network cannot go after her personally but she will need other victims to corroborate her charges if she is to have a chance of winning her case and so while the network begins to close ranks—with Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) haranguing co-workers she suspects of disloyalty and Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) passing out T-shirts demonstrating support for Ailes—she is off tracking down former colleagues in the hopes of getting them to bolster her case. Will Kayla jeopardize her possible future with the network by coming forward. More importantly, will Kelly—perhaps the only woman at the network with some form of genuine power—shake up the possible futures of Ailes and the network by relating her own past harassment at the hands of Ailes?

“Bombshell” is the latest entry in the recent subgenre of films that take their narratives directly from news stories that have either recently dominated the headlines or which were still unfolding even as they were being produced and distributed, ranging from cable dramas like “Too Big to Fail,” “Game Change,” “Recount” and the aforementioned Roger Ailes miniseries to features like the George W. Bush biopic “W,” “The Big Short” and last year’s “Vice.” Some of these films have been very good (“The Big Short” was one of the finest films of 2015) and some of them have been very bad (“Vice” was so terrible that it almost made one feel sympathy for Dick Cheney) but in nearly every case, they at least knew how they were going to approach the material at hand—the cable films took a more straightforward docudrama approach while “The Big Short” went for dark humor and “Vice” veered closer to absurd surrealism. The key behind-the-scenes players responsible for “Bombshell,” director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph, are both veterans of these films—Roach directed “Recount” and “Game Change” while Randolph won an Oscar for co-writing “The Big Short”—so you would think that they would have a grasp on how these things work. However, based on the results, it seems as if they never quite figured out which approach to take and instead elected to use them all with sometimes jarring results. There are some moments of great dramatic power to be had but they are forced to coexist uneasily with comedic elements like the stunt casting of familiar faces as other familiar faces (a conceit that hits its peak/nadir with the appearance of Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani) and an insistence on blatantly underlining things so that no one in the audience can possibly miss the meaning—for the moment in which Kelly is struggling to decide whether or not to come forward with the story of her own harassment, the film places her in a traffic jam and has her looking back and forth between her sleeping daughter in the back seat and a traffic sign that says “Stay In Your Lane.”

The big flaw with “Bombshell” is that while it is ostensibly about the poisonous work culture at Fox News and how the women there finally fought back against it, it never seems to be particularly interested in focusing on that particular topic. You would think that a film along these lines would be curious about what it is like for someone putting themselves on the line by going public with their harassment, especially when they come from a workplace culture that has often sneered on women making similar claims in the past. Instead, the Kelly storyline is more interested in framing her in a way that strives to give her a hitherto undetected degree of humanity by presenting her as a straightforward but conflicted heroine triumphing against the patriarchy at Fox, a take that rings particularly hollow if you recall just how perfectly she embodied the spirit of the network and its ultra-conservative take on the world, such as her on-air insistence that Santa Claus has to be a white man (which the film glancingly references) and when she later got fired from her later gig at NBC for making pro-blackface statements (which it ignores). Through Carlson’s story, we get the true scope of Ailes’s long-running pattern of harassment and demeaning behavior but since she was no longer working at Fox during many of the events depicted here, she is always somewhat removed from the proceedings as a whole. In terms of conveying the sheer horror and humiliation that the women went through, the Kayla storyline is the most effective—the scene in which she is in Ailes’s office and he demands that she lift her skirt higher and higher is undeniably wrenching—but is somewhat undone by the fact that, unlike Megyn Kelly and Gretche Carlson, Kayla is not a real person but a composite character meant to represent the countless number of women Ailes victimized over the years.

The fact that Kayla is not a real person may undermine some of the dramatic impact of her storyline but it does inspire the film’s best performance. Unlike most of the other actors on board, Margot Robbie is freed from the necessity of trying to look and sound like a well-known person and is therefore able to make he come across in a more realistic and sympathetic manner than her co-stars. Sure, some of the details of her character beggar belief and the big finale where she elects to leave Fox for good in order to be true to herself is especially ham-fisted, but Robbie makes even the wobbly writing work to such an extent that the movie might have been better if it had just focused on her character. By comparison, Theron’s impression of Megyn Kelly is absolutely immaculate, from her borderline plasticine looks to her distinctive speaking style, but she has invested so much energy in replicating the surface details that she has no left to explore what makes this particular woman tick. As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman’s impersonation is not quite as detailed but she does a better job of conveying her sense of outrage out of what happened to her and horror at her realization of how far it spreads. Unfortunately, because her character is removed from the proceedings, she tends to feel like an interloper at the story that she inspired. John Lithgow does a fairly inspired take on Ailes, nicely capturing his charm, as it were, and his flair for producing television as well as his more monstrous qualities. As for the parade of famous faces in cameos, it is a gimmick that eventually grows tiresome—it feels as if Roach wanted to make his film the “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” for the #MeToo era—but I concede that the idea of having Malcolm McDowell play Rupert Murdoch was an inspired one.

Perhaps “Bombshell” might have had more of an impact if it had been the first film out of the gate to examine the corrosive workplace culture at Fox and the downfall of Roger Ailes as a result of his long-running depravations. However, this is no less than the third cinematic take along these lines to emerge in 2019—besides the aforementioned Showtime miniseries, there was the acclaimed documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes”—and it simply doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The observations about Fox are nothing new and it fails to deal with the topic of sexual harassment with any sort of depth. It has its surface pleasures—the performances from Robbie and Lithgow are good and there are a few good scenes and big laughs scattered throughout—but after a while, a certain hollowness sets in that it never manages to shake. “Bombshell” is a film that was presumably made with the best of intentions but when all is said and done, it is less the incendiary device suggested by the title than it is a simple and unfortunate dud.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32987&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/21/19 02:13:47
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USA
  13-Dec-2019

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Australia
  13-Dec-2019




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