Bombshell ★★★

From the very moment Bombshell entered the picture and became a part of the critical discourse, it attracted immediate comparisons with Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Vice. To be perfectly honest, it was partially calculated into the film’s marketing, as even the trailer alone reminds us that the script was penned by the co-writer of The Big Short, Charles Randolph. What I don’t think any of the filmmakers factored into their expectations was the fact that this comparison would come loaded with vestigial criticism carried over from Vice, which was – perhaps a bit undeservedly – derided as a big steaming mess.

Jay Roach’s re-imagining of the scandal at Fox that saw Roger Ailes removed from office on account of his criminal attitude towards the female staff, which involved countless instances of sexual harassment, is actually trying to adjust its tone and style to match that of McKay’s aforementioned movies. It opens with a fourth wall-breaking sequence in which Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly gives us a tour of what it’s like to work at Fox News and uses a similar approach to camera work that seems inspired by The Thick Of It and The Office, perhaps to bolster the atmosphere of intimate urgency characterizing the subject matter. But that’s mostly where the similarities end because – in contrast to McKay’s movies - Bombshell isn’t really a satire and instead of blowing everything out of proportion with a crass tone and highly stylized storytelling in order to reveal the incomprehensible ridiculousness of the events it is portraying, it opts for a more subdued dramatization.

This is where I think the bulk of the criticism can latch onto most easily because once you realize Roach isn’t following in the footsteps of McKay and Iannucci, you may think that all you are left with is a strange concoction of scenes loosely taped together by its overarching narrative, filled with solid actors in distracting, heavy makeup. And I would imagine this is where many reviewers would pitch their tent and proceed to pour vitriol all over the film, which I think may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. I am willing to cut this movie some slack simply because I believe it was trying to package an unwieldy, multi-pronged story with a handful of lead characters into one cohesive narrative that would end up having something interesting to say. It may have actually been a doomed endeavour. Thus, the film jumps between telegraphing Megyn Kelly’s journey towards understanding her place in the unfolding scandal, Gretchen Carlson’s lone quest in taking a stand against the institutionalized harassment and rampant sexism at her workplace, and a didactically-inclined sub-narrative where Margot Robbie’s character (likely intended as a composite of experiences many women would be able to recount) finds that the desire to skip a few rungs on the ladder of success at her workplace would come at a price of humiliation and sexual abuse. And it’s all a bit clumsy.

However, there are a precious few moments in the film, like Robbie’s interview with Ailes or her confession over the phone, where the cacophony of noises generated by the multitude of narrative threads the movie is desperately trying to maintain subsides and makes vital space to drop the visceral horror of its subject matter onto the viewer. Although the overall post-Scorsese aesthetic adopted by the filmmakers may lure some viewers into the false sense of security by dropping a few funny lines here and there, Bombshell converges around these little key moments – and every major character in the film has at least one or two – where the viewer is reminded that underneath the glossy appeal and a too-cool-for-school tone peppered heavily with crass humour and potty-mouth repartee lies a deeply discomforting subject matter.

I can understand where the dismissive comments aimed at this movie are coming from. Bombshell is clumsy, tonally unhinged and if you look at it at the correct angle, it looks like a big budget Hallmark production with A-list stars in fat suits and covered in a metric tonne of makeup. What I like to think of it is a film that bites a bit more than it can chew. I like the ambition that drives the effort to do so because I believe the filmmakers wanted to adopt a holistic overview of this story that includes the asymmetrical power relationship between men and women in the workplace where sex has been adopted as currency, which forms an interconnected pyramid of dependencies and dynamics between the involved parties, the fact that sexual harassment has been accepted as normal for as long as the entertainment business has existed, or even some more nuance involving the blurring of the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not when your personal image becomes part of your job. In hindsight, it may have been an error of judgment to try and cram this much into the film, but I am nonetheless glad this movie exists, because it has its moments. Put simply, Bombshell is a clumsy mess, but an essential one.

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