REVIEW: Bombshell [2019]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: December 20th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director(s): Jay Roach
Writer(s): Charles Randolph

“Praise all tangled up in an insult”

The downfall of Roger Ailes is a captivating tale because it shows what can be done without glossing over the difficulty of achieving it. The women at Fox News who came forward to put his decades-long pattern of sexual harassment into the public forum had to weigh the truth and their duty to future generations forced into similar positions against the very real fact that doing so could mean career suicide. They had to search within and find the balance between what they were willing to look past in order to retain their success and what was worth risking everything. Because it’s an internalized war that very few men can understand let alone write, I’m disappointed the producers of Bombshell didn’t hire a woman to do exactly that.

They didn’t hire a woman director either. That honor went to Jay Roach with Charles Randolph receiving sole credit for screenwriting. Did they do a bad job? No. But you can’t watch the finished result and wonder how much better it could have been with more nuance. Without it we get a rather flippant account that leans so far into its desire to be empowering (push that camera in on Megyn Kelly’s daughter’s face to drive home that this is all for her) that it comes off as insincere. The revolving door of name actors playing caricatures doesn’t help considering we’re too busy laughing at the casting and wildly hyperbolic affectations to remember that these are real people who committed and condoned heinous acts of abuse.

Thankfully the filmmakers do get three things correct: Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), Kelly (Charlize Theron), and an amalgam of Fox News personalities given the name Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). These are three-dimensional women walking through a one-dimensional world wherein so much is said by a knowing glance at the other when context clues (elevator buttons, wardrobe, emotions) provide all they need to decipher what’s about to happen behind closed doors. Carlson starts it all off as she realizes her on-air defiance is making it so she’ll soon have nothing to lose. Kelly is the shrewd opportunist who’s obviously sympathetic and desperate to talk, but only if doing so will be on terms that benefit her future. And Pospisil is the stereotypical Fox anchor archetype thrown to the wolves.

That anyone could place one above the rest as a “lead” seems preposterous to me, but the consensus seems to favor Theron. While her Kelly is the linchpin that really breaks Fox News’ resolve, Carlson is the moral center catalyst (when the film doesn’t forget about her for the middle third) and Pospisil the present-day casualty of her counterparts’ silence. If anything Kelly is the most conventional role of the three with Robbie receiving the room to run through a full range of emotions (whether in Ailes’ clutches, as played by John Lithgow, or dealing with the ramifications opposite Kelly and co-worker BFF Jess Carr, as played by Kate McKinnon). Kidman is thus the punctuation mark amongst lawyers putting a face to the others’ tragedy.

Again, though, it’s tough to really dig deep into their struggle when they’re surrounded by a circus. To a certain extent this is necessary since Fox News is a circus of chauvinists, apologists, and opportunists. But Roach too often forgets that the comedy he’s striving for—that of the Adam McKay variety a la The Big Short (successful) and Vice (unsuccessful)—dictates we laugh at the chaos rather than with it. This supplies two problems. One: we shouldn’t be laughing at this ordeal. Two: many scenes without the main trio play out as though we’re supposed to laugh with the culprits instead. If you can’t strike the right tone and balance, it becomes a no-win scenario. Roach and company is lucky the message still shines through regardless.

It’s interesting that Kayla facilitates this result best considering she’s not real. When you realize everyone signed a gag order to receive their settlements and couldn’t therefore participate in the film, however, it makes sense. Pospisil becomes Randolph’s creative license vessel du jour and he throws the kitchen sink. She’s an evangelical who calls the Eagles “secular music.” Her family gathers round the dinner table to worship at the Fox News alter. And she’s a closeted lesbian/bisexual trying to reconcile dreams of conservative stardom with a lifestyle she was raised to abhor. It’s all just hollow color for jokes that should have been mined for greater impact, but Robbie gives it a surprising level of authenticity anyway. While everyone else plays his/her caricature broadly, she renders hers empathetic.

That’s no small feat. Neither is getting me to appreciate more about the whole than I probably should. These topics are tough to pull off with this genre because the subject matter isn’t funny. Lambasting the antagonists is, but doing so in an environment where the victims are fully entrenched in the world their predators created almost guarantees they become collateral damage too. Having Kayla victim blame Megyn may seem okay since it’s a woman calling out another woman, but it’s still victim blaming. I understand wanting to muddy the water where Kelly is concerned because she was so synonymous with the network, but they don’t go far enough for it to work. The filmmakers bit off more than they could chew and are fortunate it mostly works.


photography:
courtesy of Lionsgate

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