Tuesday 14 January 2020

Suspect device: "Bombshell"

For one thing, Bombshell is another instance of how modern movies are now being routinely scooped by modern TV. Last summer, the American cable network Showtime debuted The Loudest Voice, a detailed and nuanced seven-part account of the downfall of gropey Fox News chief Roger Ailes, overseen by Tom McCarthy and Alex Metcalf, with episodes directed by Kari Skoglund, Scott Z. Burns and Stephen Frears among others, and anchored by Russell Crowe's heavyweight performance as the disgraced media mogul. The movie version of this tale, written by Charles Randolph and directed by Austin Powers's Jay Roach, is a 105-minute gloss composed in the image of those recent Adam McKay projects (such as 2015's The Big Short, which Randolph wrote) in which liberal Hollywood attempts to address contemporary American iniquities by being incredibly arch and knowing, bordering on supercilious: cue much talking to camera, crisscrossing narration, an insanely scattershot editing strategy, and a weird reliance on comedy performers for a subject that demands to be dwelt upon with the utmost seriousness. In some future academic text, these McKay-Roach hybrids of harsh fact and crowdpleasing, lawyer-appeasing dramatic licence will come to be referred to as something like Big Mess Movies, partly as they go so eagerly to the state we're in, partly because of the haphazard way they've been thrown together. It must be hard to settle on a consistent tone or formulate a coherent argument when you're running around trying to capitalise on a Twitter hashtag.

The Loudest Voice made Ailes himself our entry point into the Fox News sharktank, the better to demonstrate how this shuffling hamhock of a man stamped an especially toxic vision on the world and its women. Bombshell splits its perspective, altogether awkwardly, between the women who took Ailes down - three practically identical blondes who collectively represent the closest Fox News ever got to a recognisable house style. To differentiate, as we must: Charlize Theron is the shrewd Megyn Kelly, the lawyer-turned-anchorwoman who became the focus of Trumpian ire after subjecting the then-candidate to actual journalistic scrutiny during a 2015 televised debate; Nicole Kidman the veteran Gretchen Carlson, an avatar for the Fox News audience in her baseline prissiness (but also the first of these women to open legal proceedings against Ailes); Margot Robbie, meanwhile, plays "Layla Pospisil", a composite for all the fresh meat pumped through the Fox News machine over the years. Looking at Theron's eerily Botoxed transformation into Kelly, the vicious haircut Kidman is stuck with for the film's first half, and the emphasis Roach places on Robbie's dresses and legs (Ailes's specific field of interest, but the camera's too), you could be forgiven for concluding that Bombshell's approach to this story will be largely cosmetic. (It's evident not just around the women: John Lithgow's jowly Ailes has the unmistakable air of Fat Bastard about him, and Richard Kind has to act his way out of old-man latex as Rudy Giuliani.) What this frantic dressing-up can't entirely conceal is how hypocritical the movie feels on a scene-by-scene basis. Bombshell holds a mirror up to the American corporate entertainment media - lest we forget, Fox News isn't a source of news so much as bellowing fakery akin to WWE wrestling - and really sees no more than showbiz itself, its own failings and prejudices, its own worst behaviour.

There are moments when Roach's film cuts through its own noise and lands something close to a point: an impassioned speech in which Theron-as-Kelly questions the point of a sexual harassment tipline to which Ailes has access, or an atypically becalmed interlude showcasing the testimony of actual harassment survivors. Yet in the main, there's just too much noise to have to cut through. Roach is relentless in his wheeling-on of new characters, and while it's admirable that so many prominent players would sign on to nail their colours to the mast, it's a movie, not a pep rally, and it leaves important stories being shouted out. He's just weird and defensive in his constant flinching in the direction of gags. When Kelly wonders aloud how a man of Ailes' advanced years could still be horndogging, and her segment producer (Rob Delaney) shrugs "Viagra?", it's not just that it's a limp joke, it's a limp joke that undercuts the point. And so the whole construction starts to look flimsy at best: if what it's showing us is as bright and colourful as cable news itself, what it's doing comes to feel deeply suspect, and it may well be telling the the Academy - generally a sucker for Big Mess Movies - saw through it, shutting Bombshell out of the Best Picture category for which it was so clearly gunning. (It's certainly damning that an electorate of grown adults found Todd Phillips' Joker a more substantial proposition.) McKay's Mess Movies are forgivable messes because they've had a lot of useful info to disseminate: they're essentially long reads poured into the wrong format. Through to its bizarre happy ending that finds deus ex machina Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) steadying the good ship Fox ahead of the Trump election, everything about Bombshell is off: manically jabbing the air and jumping around, beholden to a wayward editorial line that amounts to "Look over there!", this wannabe hardhitting artefact of our #MeToo moment never for a minute throws off the look of calculated distraction.

Bombshell opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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