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Non-Review Review: Bombshell

Bombshell is a strange and imbalanced piece of awards fare.

On the surface, Bombshell looks like a standard awards season movie. It is a story about sexual harassment, focusing on three women telling three different stories exploring three very distinct facets of that sort of abuse. The movie follows each independently, as their narratives wind and interconnect, offering a holistic perspective on a problem that remains both far too common and very highly charged. Bombshell should be a slam dunk of a story, particularly in the era of #metoo.

Shell shocked.

Unfortunately, Bombshell chooses to construct this triumphant story of virtue defeating villainy within Fox News against the backdrop of the 2016 election. It spoils very little to reveal that the big climactic moments of Bombshell offer a stunning juxtaposition; the deposing of harasser Roger Ailes is set against Donald Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention. There should be something bittersweet in this, a compelling and complex narrative of culpability and complicity. Instead, Bombshell attempts to sell this as big heroic narrative beat.

Bombshell is wrestling with something thorny and nuanced, but instead seeks to simplify it down to a simple story with clear cut heroes and cardboard antagonists. Bombshell is a movie that asks the audience to cheer for the women of Fox News as the characters head into an election cycle that would be defined by Donald Trump’s admission of sexual assault, his casual misogyny and widely-reported rape allegations. This is – at best – a complicated note on which to conclude a film. Bombshell tries to package it as a feel-good celebration of sisterhood.

Kelly’s a Hero.

Bombshell is directed by Jay Roach. Roach is best known to audiences for his work in comedy, especially films like Austin Powers or Meet the Parents. However, Roach has done a lot of political work, including directing both Recount and Game Change for HBO. Indeed, Roach arguably demonstrated that comedy directors could transition into political dramas, which reads quite well as an commentary on the state of modern politics.

One of the ironies of Bombshell is the sense that Roach has arrived late to his own party. Perhaps motivated by Roach’s pushing of boundaries, comedy director Adam McKay transitioned from broad comedies like Anchorman towards political awards fare like The Big Short and Vice. In fact, Bombshell feels particularly indebted to The Big Short and Vice. Characters in the film repeatedly address the audience, the narrative shifts and hops explain references and allusions, absurd moments are played comically, and the there are even models and diagrams to support explanations.

Old news.

The most striking thing about Bombshell is that it demonstrates just how difficult it is to pull off something like The Big Short or Vice. With those two films, McKay was roundly criticised for being too glib or too condescending, for looking down his nose at audiences and for trying to make something inherently “uncool” seem dynamic and playful. Actors like Christian Bale were accused of theatre of the grotesque, offering interpretations that were less performances and more impersonations.

These criticisms were perhaps unfair. The Big Short and Vice at least offered insight into their subjects, and maintained a sense of (perhaps too) aloof ambiguity around the moral quagmires into which they were wading. The Big Short and Vice were generally smarter – or at least shrewder – than their most vocal critics would protest. However, Bombshell lacks that confidence and that savvy. It blunders into trite cliché, not so much walking on eggshells as loudly stamping its feet up and down until there is nothing left but a fine calcium powder.

Newscasting.

There is an interesting story to be told about sexual harassment within Fox News, the media organisation that effectively transformed itself into the sentient and extremist propaganda wing of the American far right. After all, this raises thorny questions about cultures of complicity and the way in which these sorts of systemic problems build and reinforce themselves. Fox News built a platform around allowing the loudest and most aggressive voices to dictate the conversation, often in sexist and racist terms, so how does that fit with the company’s internal culture?

Bombshell centres on two real life Fox News anchors and a fictional character. In front of the camera, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson served as mouthpieces for an organisation that empowered and radicalised the most extreme voices on the American political right. More to the point, it paved a road to the White House for Donald Trump. Kelly and Carlson got out in front of stories about the political establishment that reinforced misogyny and xenophobia, and in that way helped to create a climate where predators like Roger Ailes and Donald Trump could thrive.

It rings true.

This is a very complicated issue. It is very clear why Bombshell steers well clear of it. Handled improperly, any exploration of complicity might feel like victim-blaming or slut-shaming, as if suggesting that Kelly and Carlson were directly responsible for the harassment that they received. However, Bombshell never makes any tangible connection between the attitudes that these women reinforced and the culture in which these assaults occurred.

“Is this some feminist thing?” asks producer Gil Norman when Kelly announces her plans to ask a tough question to Donald Trump. Her younger female staffers all chime in, in unison, “She’s not a feminist.” There’s never a discussion of what that actually means. Similarly, while behind the scenes staffers like bisexual Kayla Pospisil and the lesbian Jess Carr might grasp the contradiction in working for Fox News, the film never lets them follow that idea to its logical conclusions.

“We’re lesbians, not hasbians.”

Instead, Bombshell wallows in how hard it must be for these successful women to work at Fox News, and the hatred they receive as a result. Jess Carr complains that she cannot get a job elsewhere because she is tarred by association with Fox. At the supermarket, Carlson is subject to sneers from fellow shoppers. “You guys at Fox are doing terrible things to our country,” one remarks. Carlson mounts her high horse. “I hope that makes you feel better,” she seethes. “How you treat people who you disagree with says everything about you.” If the film grasps the irony, it doesn’t show it.

To be fair, Bombshell clearly aims for the moral high ground. It is a film that clearly aspires to treat Fox News with a great deal more dignity and compassion than Fox News would treat its own rivals. However, this high-mindedness feels shallow and self-defeating, going high when an opponent would go low. Bombshell refuses to get in the mud with Fox News, which is little comfort for everybody who has been on the receiving end of mud hurled by Fox News over the years. Bombshell sands down anything resembling a rough edge, but in doing so also blunts its point.

Cornering the producer.

The film is a tonal disaster, with Roach painted what should be a very grey issue in the starkest tones of black-and-white, rendering what should be a portrait in the style of a cartoon. The film ends on a triumphant note, with the women of Fox News successfully vanquishing Roger Ailes. It asks the audience to cheer them on. Carlson even asks the audience that she might serve as their guide to the issue. The closing text offers audiences a feel-good epilogue, telling viewers that these may have been among the first women to stand up against harassment, “But not the last.”

There is no acknowledgement of how much more difficult women like Kelly and Carlson made things for other women. Kayla briefly accuses Kelly of complicity, but Kelly shrugs it off and the film treats her as a hero. The film ends with Donald Trump ascendant, a man who would repeatedly attack his electoral opponent in openly sexist terms and who would find himself at the centre of rape allegations when he reached the White House. To any viewer with any knowledge of cultural or political context, Bombshell does not have a happy ending, despite its laboured insistence.

What Ailes you.

This tonal issue extends beyond the basic plot and the inevitable conclusion. Throughout the film, Roach struggles to find the right way to handle difficult material. Early scenes and characterisation play Ailes as a goofy eccentric, with Kelly wryly deadpanning that “okay… Roger Ailes is paranoid” before running through a perfunctory Freudian explanation of Ailes’ pathology. This playfulness makes it hard for the film to gracefully segue into the horror of a later assault sequence or the sincerity of characters working through the aftermath.

Bombshell is a misfire, a clumsy handling of an interesting story that reduces its most compelling elements to trite cliché.

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