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.

The Last Photograph 2017 ****

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Danny Huston’s CV runs from cigar-chewing villain in the first Wolverine spin-off to his outstanding performance in Bernard Rose’s Ivans Xtc. He’s hardly a prolific director, but his work in front of and behind the camera in The Last Photograph is impeccable. What’s near criminal here is that aside from a handful of festival screenings, his 2017 film The Last Photograph is pretty much invisible; there’s no user reviews on imdb, and not even a single-line Wikipedia entry for it. Perhaps there are reasons, but it’s not any reflection on the film-making. Huston plays Tom Hammond, a book-shop owner struggling to forget the death of his son, one of many casualties of the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1998. When a book is stolen from his shop, containing a photograph that connects Hammond to his son, it awakens memories of the night in question, and a search for justice that’s been suspended. Huston is immense in this role, angry, grieving, but without an outlet; as a director, he’s sensitive to the portrayal of a complex, nuanced character. The real-life tragedy referenced here is well-handled, with newsreel footage mixed with the film’s narrative in a non-exploitative way. The subject of The Last Photograph appears taboo; few dramas have explored Lockerbie, and perhaps that’s why The Last Photograph appears to have been obliterated by market forces; this is the kind of film that deserves a second wind through streaming services, and it’s a shame that it’s so hard to locate. Maybe Huston’s pay the rent job in –yikes- the unanticipated Angel Has Fallen will cash him up for self-distribution and get this worthwhile film out there.

Support The Girls 2018 ****

Andrew Bujalski’s excellent Support The Girls arrives in the UK over a year after a meagre Stateside trickle-out release, by which time presumably anyone interested has seen it long ago. The writer/director of Computer Chess gets up to date in this defiantly human take on the pitfalls of gals making a living in the late 2010’s.  Regina Hall plays Lisa, the manager of Double Whammies, a dive resturant/sports bar where the women wear, but are not defined by, demeaning costumes designed to please their aging patrons.  Lisa has plenty of problems to deal with, but manages to strike up cameraderies which get her through the day. This is a bitter, caustic but also very funny and wise film about how women have to deal with men’s vanities to eke out a living; Lisa is something of a saint to the low-wage workers round about her, but punning title aside, Support The Girls has genuine insight to offer about how women might just about overcome a rigged system in the workplace.

American Made 2017 ****

Is Tom Cruise still considered bankable in 2019 outside the Mission Impossible films? The relative box office failure of The Mummy and American Made in 2017 made it seem like Cruise had lost his touch, but while the Monsterverse entry was clearly a misfire, American Made sees the star at his best. Capably directed by Doug Liman, American Made casts Cruise as Barry Seal, an airline pilot who gets involved with drug smuggling. Liman’s film is in the vein of Goodfellas or Ted Demme’s Blow, a cautionary tale that’s brimming with enthusiasm for the details, true or false. Sequences such as Seal trying to navigate a too-short runway in a too heavy plane or a stomach-churning crash landing over a residential area are dynamically brought to life, and Cruise absolutely nails it as a cocky showman who realises he’s well out of his depth. American Made is a terrific film about crime and punishment, and never stops entertaining even as Seale’s life spirals out of control. And the politics, implicating several big names, are more direct than might be expected.