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‘Bombshell’ and ‘Richard Jewell’ stage tone-deaf portraits of the recent past

This past winter break, I had the unfortunate pleasure of wasting $20 and 240 minutes of my time watching “Bombshell” and “Richard Jewell” in theaters. Thankfully, I was also able to catch “Little Women” and stream a couple of other great 2019 movies online, many of which were snubbed in this year’s Academy Awards (while “Bombshell” and “Richard Jewell” received a combined total of four nominations). Although it is no surprise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences produced yet another disappointing—and painfully reflective of their continued refusal to commend non-white, non-male filmmakers and actors—list of nominees, it still comes as a shock that these two films were lauded at all when movies like “Uncut Gems” and “The Farewell” went without any recognition. Perhaps it is too much, in 2020, to expect this 90-year-old awards show to demonstrate any amount of perspective, taste, societal awareness, respect, or genuinely progressive behavior … but I digress. 

It is important to note that “Bombshell” and “Richard Jewell” are both based on true stories that deserve to be told. They are both carried by star-studded casts and some notable performances (i.e. Oscar nominated Charlize Theron and Kathy Bates). And they are both very, very politically tone-deaf. 

“Bombshell” centers on the 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Fox News journalist Gretchen Carlson against chairman Roger Ailes, but focuses primarily on the experiences of former anchor Megyn Kelly and a fictional staffer played by Margot Robbie. As a movie about women—specifically violence against women—it goes without a doubt that “Bombshell” should have been helmed by a woman. Instead, it was directed by Jay Roach (whose other films include the “Austin Powers” trilogy) and written by Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”). As a result, “Bombshell” is thoughtless, insensitive, sensationalistic and makes no attempt to dig beneath the surface, leaving the women of Fox News staunchly depicted as either heroes or monsters in the movement for liberation. 

I can imagine that many people may praise the creators behind “Bombshell” for “putting politics aside” when making this movie, but they are failing to see that, by not delving into, critiquing, or even really addressing the specific setting of Fox News for this story about corporate sexism and misogyny, “Bombshell” has taken an inherently conservative stance. The film feels as though it’s made for viewers of Fox News or anyone who wants to watch a scandalous movie about a real life event without having to actually learn anything or think too much about it. 

It doesn’t help that the camerawork is also entirely inappropriate for its serious subject matter. “Bombshell” is filmed like the worst aspects of “The Big Short” were made into an episode of “The Office,” complete with frequent zoom shots and fourth-wall breaking. Besides the effort put into making Charlize Theron look and sound like a scarily accurate replica of Megyn Kelly, this film has almost no redeeming qualities. 

Between “Bombshell” and “Richard Jewell,” I enjoyed the latter significantly more, but that isn’t necessarily a compliment. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Richard Jewell” is the true story of a misunderstood security guard who was wrongfully targeted by the FBI and accused of planting a bomb he discovered at Centennial Park in 1996. It’s another movie that declines to go deeper, choosing instead to cater to a sensationalistic narrative rather than explore the complexities of the situation. 

The portrayal of Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the Atlanta-based journalist who first broke the news of the FBI’s interest in Richard Jewell, feels almost harmful in its writing and execution. In a movie about the wrongful vilification of an innocent man, Eastwood takes great pains to vilify Scruggs, painting her as a bloodthirsty, contemptible reporter, adding the fictional detail that she exchanged sexual favors for tips and information. In doing so, it seems that he is making the decision to put equal responsibility on acts of reckless journalism and underhanded measures taken by the United States government. Although Scruggs’ character was given a very short scene at the end to express teary-eyed remorse, Eastwood neglected to add anything about her life and death in the final credits alongside information about almost every other prominent character. 

2020 is yet another new year for cinema. It’s an opportunity for us to challenge the casual homophobia, “fake news” rhetoric and confederate flags littered throughout “Richard Jewell,” and the mistreatment of important, groundbreaking stories in “Bombshell,” and recognize that the political impact of media should never be ignored. For me, it’s also a chance to see better movies than these two in theaters and finally give up on hoping the Academy Awards will ever pay sole tribute to deserving talent.

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