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‘Bombshell’ not quite a dud

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With the cultural pervasiveness that came from the #MeToo movement, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing cinematic representations of those narratives.

“Bombshell,” directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by Charles Randolph, is one such movie. A dramatization of the story of sexual harassment behind the scenes at Fox News, the film stars Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman, each of whom portrays a woman impacted by the behind-the-scenes actions of men in power.

Unfortunately, while the performances are undeniably excellent across the board, the framework in which those performances exist is somewhat lacking. There’s a thinness to the proceedings that undermines the overall experience, with motivational and behavioral questions left unanswered in a manner that renders the film rather unsatisfying.

 

In 2016, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, “Long Shot”) is an on-air mainstay at Fox News, one of the network’s most prominent faces and most popular personalities. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, TV’s “Big Little Lies”) is a longtime Fox personality whose star has a lost a little luster; she’s hosting a show, but in a little-watched afternoon time slot. And Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) is a newcomer to the newsroom, an ambitious young true believer who thinks she can bridge the gap to the “millennial conservatives” out there.

Fox News is run with exacting precision by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, TV’s “The Crown”); he rules the operation with an iron fist, having essentially invented this kind of cable operation out of whole cloth. He’s given free reign by owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell, “Corbin Nash”) to handle things however he sees fit. And Ailes is very good at what he does, turning Fox News into a billion-dollar profit-making machine.

But behind closed doors, Ailes’s ruthlessness is decidedly unsavory.

When Carlson goes public with accusations that Ailes sexually harassed her and sues him, Fox News is thrown into chaos. Lines are drawn in the sand and people are expected to declare their allegiances loudly without reservation.

Only Carlson isn’t the only one. Far from it.

Kelly’s world – already in turmoil courtesy of an ongoing feud with then-candidate Donald Trump – is upended by demands that she support Ailes. She remains silent, unable to speak her truth yet unwilling to lie. Meanwhile, Pospisil has her own conflicted feelings; she struggles with what she has done in the name of climbing the ladder, ashamed and embarrassed by the moral and ethical sacrifices she has made.

Both Kelly and Pospisil have support – Kelly has her husband Doug (Mark Duplass, TV’s “The Morning Show”); Pospisil has her co-worker/friend Jess (Kate McKinnon, “Yesterday”) – but ultimately, the choice of what they will say and do is theirs alone. And that choice will have major ramifications for them both professionally and personally.

There’s a delicacy that is required when trying to address real-life events like these. One wants to be honest in the portrayal of what happened, but there’s also flexibility necessary to make a good movie. Finding that balance isn’t always easy – a fact made clear by Roach and company’s struggles here. While the matter-of-factness of the approach is understandable, that straightforwardness removes some of the nuance from the situation – and that nuance is where we tend to find room to emotionally engage.

In short, while we do have an easily-hissable villain, we aren’t given much space in which to sympathize with the victims. And make no mistake, they ARE victims, regardless of the circumstances that led to their victimization. However, the sterility of the storytelling undercuts our empathy.

One thing that needs to be made clear, however, is just how good the performances in this movie actually are. They are so good, in fact, that the film begins with a disclaimer reminding viewers that all real-life people are being portrayed by actors except in archival footage. It might strike you as an unnecessary warning, but rest assured – you will be stunned by the transformative nature of some performances.

We’ll start with Theron, because her performance as Megyn Kelly is uncanny. With a shift in vocal affect and just the tiniest bit of (extremely subtle) prosthetic assistance, Theron is borderline indistinguishable from Kelly for long stretches. She carries much of the load and does so with graceful aplomb; it’s a great performance. Kidman doesn’t quite achieve the same levels of verisimilitude as Theron, but she’s plenty compelling as Gretchen Carlson. And Lithgow is shift-in-your-seat discomfiting as the oily, lecherous Ailes; even buried under makeup and prosthetics, it’s a performance that is the best kind of ugly.

Meanwhile, Robbie is given the task of incorporating her character, a fictionalized amalgam, into the proceedings without letting us see the seams. She nails it, finding the perfect blend of ambition and naivete. Watching her outer and inner selves move in opposing directions is mesmerizing. McKinnon does yeoman’s work as Jess; also an amalgam, she finds ways to endow the character with far more heart and humor than one would expect in limited screen time.

And then you’ve got the ensemble, packed with talent: McDowell and Duplass, of course, but also Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Stephen Root, D’Arcy Carden, Richard Kind, P.J. Byrne … you get the picture. Most of them are playing real-life figures; there are some remarkable resemblances to familiar faces in the mix.

“Bombshell” is a story that deserves telling, a tale of powerful people leveraging that power in sinister, terrible ways. But while the performers telling the story excel, they never quite manage to overcome the issues presented by the script and the style.

It goes off with neither a bang nor a whimper, but something in-between.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 23 December 2019 17:25

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