‘Bombshell’ Easily Defused, Fizzles Out

by Warren Cantrell on December 13, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

A ripped-from-the-headlines drama with timely themes and an A+ cast, Bombshell has everything it needs to succeed, yet sucks all the same. A true story about the downfall of a real-deal media mogul, the film has a good idea of what kind of story it wants to tell with no real idea of how to convey it. Indeed, muddled character work, a freewheeling narrative, and the baggage of trying to elicit sympathy for people working on behalf of pure fucking evil ultimately sink the effort, which tries to get by on little more than Fox News cosplay and some halfway interesting inside baseball.

Charlize Theron plays real-life “journalist” Megyn Kelly circa 2016, narrating an introduction of her then-network, Fox News, to the audience. She opens the film by explaining the structure of the company with chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) in control of all aspects of the news network, with the Murdoch family above (and in control of) him. Kelly paints a picture of a news network beholden to Ailes’ every whim, from the copy content to the visual aesthetics of each program and host. Nothing happens at Fox News unless it fits in with Ailes’ vision, with any deviations addressed with blistering, profane intensity.

Bombshell shifts its focus from here to longtime Fox host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who has been pushing back against the increasingly hardline bent of the network’s messaging, along with its baked-in boy’s club culture. Her resistance against both have put her in Ailes’ bad graces, leading to her demotion to a less desirable timeslot; what’s worse, it has also prompted abandonment from some of her staff, which includes the wide-eyed and self-described “millennial evangelical” Kayla (Margot Robbie). Kayla wants to be on T.V., not behind the scenes, and correctly deduces that Carlson’s star isn’t one she should be hitched to.

When Carlson decides to take on Ailes by way of a sexual harassment lawsuit, the women of Fox News must decide what side they are on, which puts both Megyn and Kayla in difficult positions since each has witnessed inappropriate behavior, yet don’t necessarily want to risk their careers to report it. Bombshell bounces back and forth between Gretchen, Megyn, and Kayla and their experiences navigating this decision while also throwing in some Trump-related drama involving his feud with the network during the 2016 campaign…which is the first of many stumbling points for the script.

There are two movies battling against each other, here, with Carlson’s legal fight with a dash of Kayla’s story on one side, and Megyn’s dust-up with Trump during the campaign on the other. The script, written by The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph, tries to fold the competing narratives into each other, yet the film can’t manage to balance the admittedly big ideas of each. Is this a movie about the plight of women in a sexually charged workplace, or a tale of disillusionment with a right-wing media empire that is increasingly beholden to its toxic viewership?

There’s a very interesting B-plot about Megyn Kelly’s struggle with the monster she helped to create after getting on Trump’s bad side during one of the Republican debates, which teases at some modicum of introspection that never really goes anywhere. At times, it feels like Bombshell wants to dig deeper into this side of the story, yet it can’t help but to run back to the Gretchen narrative and how it acts as a mirrored counterpoint to the ascendency of Kayla. Either of these stories might have carried the picture and provided enough thematic nourishment for the piece as a whole, yet the script doesn’t serve either very well, and leaves each only half-developed.

What’s more, there’s just too many characters in Bombshell, and the script doesn’t do much with any of them except Megyn, Gretchen, and Kayla. Aside from all the appearances of well-known Fox personalities by actors doing very good impressions (Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani is especially fun), there’s a few side characters that pop in just to give some exposition, only to then fade away in the background. Connie Britton and Kate McKinnon are utterly wasted in this regard, as is the slew of portrayals of Hannity, Pirro, O’Reilly, et al: none of whom give any insight into what drives or motivates these people and their work.

Indeed, if audiences are going to Bombshell hoping to get an idea of how an American “news” network transformed into a race-baiting, civil rights-quashing, Russian propaganda mouthpiece, and how the people working there justify that bent, they will be disappointed. And while McKinnon’s character has some interesting things to say early on about how Fox News stains a person’s reputation and resume, it is a thread largely left dangling. As a result, it’s almost impossible to feel sympathy for any of these people, which makes investment in (or enjoyment of) this film exceedingly difficult.

Theron, Kidman, and Lithgow all do great work with their imitations, as does the hair, make-up, and prosthetics departments, who absolutely nail their real-life targets with the portrayals. It’s just a shame that they put in such good work for a movie that doesn’t know how to juggle all of this. Much like the plight of Megyn Kelly herself, Bombshell suffers an almost impossible dilemma, for both sides of the political spectrum will find something to dislike about all of this. Whether one sympathizes with the right and takes issue with the portrayal of the morally repugnant culture at Fox News, or sides with the left and feels no sympathy for collaborators who only jumped ship when it became uncomfortable for them, there’s no winning hand to play, here. Much like Megyn Kelly again, few will likely care, and that’s okay, too.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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