There was only one story everyone was talking about after this year's Academy Awards: Bombshell won Best Makeup and Hairstyling! What, you never saw it? That's not surprising, considering that it lived up to its name at the box office. Its financial failure prompted some culture writers to argue that former Fox News ghouls like Megyn "Maybe black people wouldn't get shot by the police if they weren't so uppity" Kelly were portrayed with too much bland sympathy, while the kind of sites that run headlines like "IS FROZEN 2 'FREEZING' THE MINDS OF OUR CHILDREN WITH LIBERAL CLIMATE CHANGE LIES?" reveled in the demise of the "Anti-Fox News" film. But there's a bigger question here: does anyone even want this kind of movie?
Bombshell is 100 minutes of terrible things happening to women that were already explained by news articles. It's not like there was going to be a twist ending, or a banjo duel between Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. For a movie about a propaganda network, it never got more political than when its trailer played "Bad Guy" over a shot of Roger Ailes (got 'em!). The general review consensus was "It's well-acted and covers the basics, but has nothing to say." Who wants to slog through that? Oh yeah, and it had competition for its already small target market: Showtime rushed out a Roger Ailes miniseries called The Loudest Voice a few months before Bombshell's release. Shockingly, a show that tapped Seth McFarlane to play Brian Lewis did not fare well.
Its reviews amounted to "Russell Crowe is pretty good, but we're not crowing over this one." It also had nothing to say, and it said nothing over far more hours than it needed to. It hit all the biographical details, but refused to look at Fox News' broader impact on America. It tells the viewer what happened -- which the viewer probably already knew if they were bothering to watch -- but it didn't care about the how and why. It was empty prestige, existing only for the sake of saying "We were the first to film these important events!" It was Showtime's least watched premiere of the year, and Ray Donovan's biggest demographic was people who fell asleep in front of their television.
One review compared The Loudest Voice's "Gee whiz, this famously terrible man sure was a real stinker, huh? Ah well, them's the breaks!" approach to Vice, which took a look at one of America's most powerful, influential, and unlikable politicians and boldly said "Here are some of the things he did, displayed in sequential order. That'll learn him!" Vice lost its studio at least $15 million, and it was just the latest in a long line of "Here are the depressing facts and not much else" flops.
At least Vice could have potentially used the passage of time for reflection. Most of these movies are ripped from the headlines and rushed to theatres, then fail because they do nothing but blandly recite what was known about a story that was still developing while the film was being made. No one wants to see a portentous movie sum up a news article they already read. Remember 2013's The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange? Probably not, because it was the year's biggest failure, returning just 21% of its budget. For context, infamous flop R.I.P.D. managed a 60% return, and 100% of its audience was YouTubers with names like "The Furious Film Fan" looking for fodder.
The Fifth Estate took a vague enough stab at grappling with WikiLeaks' complexities to be labelled a "massive propaganda attack" by Assange, who's more of a fan of the Australian TV movie "From the producers of The Slap" that was rushed out the year prior to lionise him. But again, reviews of The Fifth Estate largely amounted to "Cumberbatch is good, but this movie is cumbersome." And not long before The Fifth Estate we got We Steal Secrets, a critically acclaimed documentary. Who thought there would be a massive audience saying "I'm interested in a video version of this topical news, but not, like, documentary interested. I'll wait ten months for the drama that purports to have documentarian accuracy"? Because apparently that audience was three people, one of whom got up for popcorn halfway through and never bothered to come back.
The "He's complicated, but he mostly means well!" vibe of The Fifth Estate has also looked dated ever since Assange proved to be a useful idiot during his 2016 election meddling and started pushing Seth Rich conspiracy theories, to the misery of the Rich family. There was also the moment when irony ate itself and WikiLeaks protested the leak of their chats that revealed "a running theme of sexism and misogyny, hints of anti-Semitism, and Assange's well-documented obsession with his public image." From a business perspective it would be one thing if the filmmakers had already cashed in and moved on, but now there's even less reason to watch a movie that no one really wanted to watch in the first place.
But Hollywood looked at the year's biggest flop and said "What if that, but with Edward Snowden?" The only Snowden film anyone needed was Citizenfour, a 2014 documentary that won an Academy Award and a pile of other trophies, appeared on numerous best of the year lists, and seemed to say all that needed to be said on the subject. Then, in 2016, we got a drama anyway.
Snowden's trailer tacked on a love story, featured plenty of "HOLY SHIT COMPUTERS ARE MAGIC" special effects, and completed the inane movie trifecta with a slow, "artsy" version of "When The Saints Go Marching In." And then it, all together now, flopped at the box office and got reviews that amounted to "We loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but average Joes shouldn't leave it to see this one ('it' being their homes)." And again, it took no stance to justify its own existence. If you want an education on current events as they happen, there are journalists and documentaries. If you want dramatic thrills, you need years or even decades to let history fade into entertainment. Otherwise you're stuck in the middle, hoping that people will pay to bum themselves out about the world they're living in.
Maybe the stories of Assange and Snowden are too obscure or too political for the general public. But then there was 2013's Jobs, a movie that felt like it was in such a hurry to cash in on Steve Jobs' death that they couldn't even be bothered to write his full name. Its terrible trailer essentially shows the whole movie and was forced on everyone with eyeballs in 2013 about 20,000 times. And yet, as it blasted "The Original Inventor" and "The Original Rebel" at viewers over hokey inspirational music, it might as well have added "REMEMBER TO INCLUDE THIRD CHARACTER TRAIT BEFORE RELEASE" for how by the numbers it looked.
And, once more with feeling, it flopped, with Ashton Kutcher's performance considered the only achievement of note in a rote "Wow, look at how much this smart guy accomplished!" story. Jobs had so little to say that the highest praise we could find came from someone who looked at its brief mention of Steve Jobs being a dick to his friends and family and said "This is a valuable lesson on how budding entrepreneurs shouldn't waste time on human relationships." Jobs isn't awful, it's just... there. It's the obligatory oatmeal at a breakfast buffet. Then 2015 gave us both the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and a movie with a full title, Steve Jobs, which worked because they gave some thought to what they wanted to accomplish beyond "Be the first Steve Jobs movie, then somehow garner automatic praise for doin' news stuff."
Biopics are always a risky proposition -- for every Hidden Figures there are half a dozen Gottis -- but Hollywood is almost pathological in its refusal to learn that no one wants "Here are some recent events that you can read about on Wikipedia, but with a soundtrack." If a movie is rushed out to say "Here's what just happened" instead of exploring the far more difficult "Here's why this happened, and here's the interesting impact it had" then it's probably going to flop, and then we'll probably get another one next year anyway. One day our distant descendants will watch Skull Throne: The Immortal Warlord Garglax Story and will leave the holotheatres grumbling "Okay, but what effect did Garglax's conquest of Neo Ohio have on its people?"
These movies are so bland that watching all of their trailers in a row, each one talking about how one determined man can change the world but maybe be a little sad while doing it, can induce madness. And when someone churns out a Robert Mueller or Greta Thunberg biopic a few months from now, they'll either be naively misguided or involved in some sort of tax dodge.