Hal Roach

Bombshell

07/01/20

It was perhaps inevitable that #MeToo would eventually inspire a movie and it’s rather ironic that the first one out of the gate has been written and directed by men – moreover, the director is Hal Roach, previously best known for the Austin Powers films, a franchise that never troubled itself overmuch with the subject of women’s rights. Nonetheless, Bombshell is a powerful and prescient story that takes a close look at the Fox News scandal and the people who lived through it.

Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Fox’s most influential news anchor, who, at the film’s opening, is exchanging excoriating words with one Donald Trump, an event that will put her on the Republican party’s shit list for an entire year. Kelly has long ago learned to co-exist with Fox News’s all-powerful boss, Roger Aisles (the usually avuncular John Lithgow, cast against type here as a loathsome philanderer). Aisles constantly keeps an eye peeled for new opportunities and soon finds it with the arrival of ambitious young TV producer, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Kayla has a yen to step in front of the cameras herself. The question is, how much will Aisles demand to help her achieve that ambition?

Meanwhile, another veteran presenter, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), finds her power at the network fading. She’s already been shunted to a less prestigious afternoon slot because of her refusal to kowtow to Mr Aisles’ increasingly sexist demands – and, when she is summarily sacked for no good reason other than she is getting older, she decides to sue Aisles for wrongful dismissal. She hopes that other women who have suffered at his hands will join her cause but, as she soon discovers, many employees at Fox (including Kelly) have too much to lose to risk incurring the wrath of the network…

Charles Randolph’s screenplay does a pretty thorough job of depicting the toxic atmosphere at Fox News during this period. Both Theron and Kidman, sporting convincing prosthetics to make them look more like the genuine players, offer their customary assured performances, but are perhaps hampered by the fact that, when playing real life personalities, finding their inner life can be problematic. It’s therefore Robbie who is the real revelation here. Since her character is a fiction, an amalgam of Aisles’ many victims over the years, she has more freedom to explore the role – and runs with it. The scene where Aisles compels her to ‘give him a twirl’ is an object lesson in understatement, the character’s hidden turmoil brilliantly expressed in every movement and gesture – while later on her tearful phone conversation with a female friend is emotive stuff. Lithgow too is excellent, horribly convincing as the oleaginous Aisles, a man who can make the very act of breathing look unpleasant.

I like the unflinching realism here. There’s no female bonding on display, no sense of the women working together for a common purpose – indeed, the major protagonists of this story barely exchange half a dozen words with each other. It’s a sobering demonstration of how personal ambitions can get in the way of a greater good. But that makes it all the more believable, more like something that could actually happen in such a cutthroat, competitive world.

Watch out for a cameo from Malcolm McDowell as a (pretty convincing) Rupert Murdoch and don’t miss the closing captions, which point out how the guilty parties in this debacle came away with (surprise, surprise) a lot more money than its supposed victors.

Bombshell may be the first film to properly explore the subject of  #MeToo, but I’m quite sure it won’t be the last. And, for a opening salvo, this hits most of its targets.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Trumbo

STILL-01STILL-02

16/02/16

Despite a couple of well-deserved Oscar nominations, Trumbo didn’t trouble the multiplexes for very long at all – perhaps it was a tad too political to draw in the crowds, even with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the lead role, but you can still catch it on the big screen at independent cinemas (it’s showing at Home, Manchester until the 23rd Feb.) It’s essentially a biopic of screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo and if the name doesn’t mean an awful lot to you, certainly some of the movies he wrote will – Roman Holiday, anyone? Spartacus? Exodus? 

The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo is one of the most respected and successful screenwriters in the Hollywood cannon. He is also, like many of his friends,  a member of the Communist Party. As the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee comes into being, such people are increasingly regarded with hostility and suspicion. They are seen by many as the ‘communist threat,’ secretly planning to overthrow the USA. Such suspicions are further fuelled by the scurrilous (and openly racist) rants of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa (played here with venomous relish by Helen Mirren.) Trumbo is the man with the guts to stand up to the committee and for his pains is imprisoned for several years, even though he hasn’t actually broken any laws. On his release, his career in tatters, he’s  obliged to ghostwrite cheap movies for the unscrupulous producer Frank King (John Goodman) for a fraction of his former salary. He goes on to create similar opportunities for his other friends who have been similarly shafted, in each case ascribing authorship to a non-existent screenwriter. But when one of his films, The Brave One, is nominated for an Oscar, it’s clear that something has to change…

Biopics are tricky creatures, but Director Hal Roach does a good job with this one, aided no end by a scorching performance by Cranston  – his chain-smoking, wisecracking personification of the great man never fails to entertain, even as it informs. Roach has also made a decent fist of casting actors to play movie icons – Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson and Dean O Gorman’s turn as the young Kirk Douglas is extraordinary – just check out the sequences from Spartacus where he interacts on screen with Woody Strode – you literally cannot see the joins.

More importantly, perhaps, Trumbo takes a cold hard look at one of the most shameful eras in American history – and with the irresistible rise of Donald Trump to provide contemporary resonance, its message has never been more timely. Do take the opportunity to see this film, it’s really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney