Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

5 Comments

  1. You say Rep presidents “all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles…” I’ve been reading UK and French news stories since the 70s. Reps values don’t mesh with the EU. Reps are often far right religious conservatives, not progressive, not inclined to multiculturalism or equal rights, welfare of masses… They tend to push for war or other profit making ventures, ignore environmental issues, arts, education, etc. Reagan, Bush, and Nixon were applauded far too many times in my opinion.
    RE Bombshell review, mostly agree. I did think ladies assumed caricature poses too often….wish sexploitation history could be revisited. I was lucky and fought back, e.g. when my sexist boss pulled staffers bra straps, he only did it to me once. I reached up and pinched his nose, which he was sensitive about…he never bothered me again.

  2. Agree with this, and yes, Republican and EU values don’t mesh. it’s not a conspiracy, just a reflection of values. But if you based your opinion of US politics on the European media, you’d think a Republicans barely exist. Anyway…hats off to you for nipping sexism in the workplace squarely in the bud!

  3. Just to clarify: Are you an American expat living abroad or a European who has lived in the US? Or none of the above?

    For the record, I completely agree with your assessment of the skewed outside interpretation other Westerners have of US politics. I suppose part of the dynamic is that popular culture is most always more “progressive” than a given nation’s mean sociopolitical center, while its government tends to be more conservative than that center. American media, arts, and soft power is present to some extent in most parts of the world I’ve traveled (e.g. Latin America, South Asia, Canada), so maybe that explains the misinterpretation you’re describing.

    Another explanation is that most foreigners’ experience of the USA is NYC, LA, San Fran, or Miami. Maybe Chicago. No one ever visits us bumpkins in “Flyover Country.”

    OK, rant over. Any part of this movie’s *cinematography* make the movie visually interesting, at all?

  4. Have lived in NYC and LA. News coverage feels very different when on the ground, partly because EU version is so selective. I do travel and like to watch the local news in Portland or Atlanta, just because it doesn’t feel so tailored to creating a slanted picture. US news is like watching a raw feed, EU views on US politics are a biased digest. Bombshell has, like Game Changer, a TV movie look with little cinematic about it apart from the name stars. Hence Oscar noms for acting, but not for screenplay or picture. I think there is a role for this kind of urgent cinema a clef, but it also feels self-important and is not balanced in the way the makers might believe.

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