Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Film Review: Bombshell

Not even Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman can save Jay Roach's Bombshell from a muddled story. 

Bombshell is the story of cable network Fox News, and how its ageing patriarch Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, buried under layers of make-up), was toppled by a string of sexual harassment cases in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election.

Charlize Theron plays popular anchor Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman plays ousted anchor Gretchen Weiners Carlson and Margot Robbie plays a character named Kayla, who is a work of fiction and has been inserted into the film alongside her also fictitious coworker Jess (Kate McKinnon).

On paper, Bombshell has all the right ingredients; but in execution, it struggles to mix them together into something appetising. In the current climate, a film that unpacks the social structure of the Fox News newsroom – with all the rivalries and political baggage that comes with it – should be a compelling – and more importantly, timely – text.

When the current President of the United States treats the cable news network like an extension of his own White House press office, a deep dive into how toxic masculinity in media intersects with sex and politics is an opportunity to really grapple with some of America's core values.

However, Bombshell spurns this opportunity in favour of something much broader; in fact, the full extent of the blunt commentary Jay Roach's film brings to the table could be scribbled on the corner of a used napkin. As an exposé of sexual misconduct, it lacks the punch of Spotlight. As a smart satire of politics, it lacks the venom of Vice. And as a witty, fourth-wall breaking exploration of something complex often kept behind closed doors, it lacks the flair of The Big Short. In short, it's lacking – big time. For a film wrapped around a shocking scandal, I found the whole thing profoundly predictable and procedural.

The trio of ladies who front all the posters and trailers are good enough individually, but don't cross paths enough for any kind of rapport to develop. The film treats their three stories as individual strands, which is less impactful than them uniting to bring about change.

Instead, Kidman spends most of the film in her kitchen and living room, talking on the phone or watching the news headlines as they unfold; Theron and Robbie deliver commanding performances as Kelly and 'default composite character serving as audience POV' respectively, but some confused messaging detracts from the film's overall impact.

I mean, Fox News is still Fox News, right? Yes, dismantling an ingrained culture of misogyny and challenging a status quo where women were systematically mistreated and harassed is a good thing, but that organisation has deeper seated issues than just that. The film dresses up some problematic people as feminist heroes, and something about that doesn't sit right with me.

Again, that's all contextual, but no film exists in a vacuum, and Bombshell's dismissal of some of the broader and more pervasive issues associated with powerful men in media and misuse of said power is a damning element that can't just fall by the wayside. 

All this criticism comes before touching on the fact that, whatever way you slice it, Bombshell is kinda boring? After the initial 'bombshell', the plot just poodles along and lacks urgency. It doesn't commit itself to the fourth wall breaking enough to feel worthwhile, and in general the direction feels more like a slick TV movie.

There are scenes or moments that will stick in your memory; one scene Robbie shares with Lithgow's leery Ailes cuts deep, and much of this rests on the two performances. Another where Robbie pours her heart out over the phone highlights the emotional depth this story warrants but doesn't deliver consistently enough.

The Verdict: 5/10

For a film starring three of the best actresses working today, Bombshell is bafflingly bland. It earns points for wringing good performances from Theron, Robbie and Lithgow, but this Bombshell goes off not with a bang, but a dull thud.

Bombshell is in cinemas across Australia from tomorrow, Thursday 16 January.

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