BOMBSHELL (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on true stories are increasingly popular these days. OK, not as popular as comic book films, but the appeal of tapping into ‘truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” is a natural, as viewers bring a sense of familiarity to the characters and/or events. On the flipside, this familiarity can create challenges for the filmmakers and actors as they must meet viewer expectations or risk being waved off as a flop. When tackling the story of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the sexual harassment scandal of 2016, the folks associated with this project faced the added burden of an internationally reported story with faces and personalities recognized around the globe.

For the most part, director Jay Roach (TRUMBO, MEET THE PARENTS, AUSTIN POWERS), screenwriter Charles Randolph (Oscar winner THE BIG SHORT), and a very talented cast succeed in taking us behind the scenes of this unsettling story, so that we might better understand how 20 years of despicable behavior continued unabated. The film picks up in 2015 as the Presidential campaigns are underway. Megyn Kelly (a spot-on performance from Oscar winner Charlize Theron) breaks the 4th wall and takes us on a tour of the Fox offices – even pointing out Roger Ailes’ private and secure sanctuary. We then see the memorable moment where Ms. Kelly publicly questioned candidate Donald Trump about his history with women. It was a moment that shook the network, and elevated Megyn Kelly to worldwide notoriety.

Early emphasis is on Gretchen Carlson (played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), and her declining role at the network as she is removed from the highly rated “Fox and Friends”, and placed on her own show in an unappealing time slot. Although her professional skills are presented in a way that has her appearing a bit amateurish, Ms. Carlson makes the case that she was unceremoniously removed due to her not going along with Ailes’ wishes behind closed doors. It’s Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes that kicks off the downfall of the network’s leader. She was the one courageous enough to be first.

Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisill, an ambitious producer who initially works for Carlson, and then moves on to “The O’Reilly Factor”. Kayla is a composite character written to represent many of the women who worked at the network. She is smart and working towards a shot at becoming an on-air personality. It’s that ambition that results in her sitting in Ailes’ office when he says “Stand up and give me a twirl.” His request (evidently not an uncommon one) is followed by his reasoning – “Television is a visual medium.” It’s Kayla’s interaction that allows us a glimpse at the systemic sexual harassment that became commonplace in the office. The toxic environment was not isolated to Ailes … as shown here, and proven later.

John Lithgow perfectly captures the elderly Ailes, who suffers from multiple physical ailments – none of which affect his ego or demented nature. He never sees the evil of his ways, as he’s been taking advantage of his power position for so long, the right comebacks and lead-ons have become second nature to him. What makes this even more frightening is that Ailes apparently used this harassment and manipulation as the first step in a form of mind control … to ensure the content of his network fit his ultra-conservative and closed-minded ideals. The message was clear: remain loyal to him or lose your career.

The ensemble cast is excellent, even if the leads dominate the story. Oscar winner Allison Janney portrays Ailes’ attorney Susan Esrcih, Connie Brittain plays his supportive wife Beth Ailes, Malcolm McDowell is Rupert Murdoch, and Kate McKinnon plays Kayla’s co-worker (and more) Jess Carr, who is forced to keep her private life in her desk drawer. Other supporting roles are filled by Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Anne Ramsay, and Richard Kind. Some of the real life names and faces include: Bill O’Reilly, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren, Neil Cavuto, Geraldo Rivera, and Jeanine Pirro.

This place is crazy.” I don’t remember which character said it, but it could have been any of them. The politics of the network (and Ailes himself) are always hovering over every scene. What caused Fox News to become such a toxic work environment?  Having a despicable leader doesn’t seem like enough. Why were so many men treating it as a frat house, and so few women willing to speak up? The answer seems to be that these were talented and ambitious women who were determined not to lose what they had worked for. When one character states that women owe it to each other to speak up, it really brings into focus how much courage is required to do just that.

Showtime’s multiple-episode “The Loudest Voice” with Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson was able to go into greater depth with the longer run time, but director Roach tells this from the women’s viewpoint. Ms. Theron truly disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly, while Lithgow, Kidman and Robbie deliver in a way that we forget we are watching actors. Some of the best segments feature these women reacting in the moment … moments we hope are becoming extinct. By the way, I wonder how much a “Team Roger” t-shirt is going for these days – or if they can even give them away?

watch the trailer:


THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer: