Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is content to trot through the highs and lows of Hedy Lamarr’s career and personal life. Dean calls upon famous faces, like Lamarr’s close friends Mel Brooks and the late Robert Osborne, to provide testimony for the actress’s infectious personality, while Lamarr’s family members retrieve documents and personal items to help explain each successive phase of her life. The most convincing voice is Lamarr, whose never-broadcast audio interview with a reporter in 1990 is used as voiceover throughout. But Dean’s general reliance on talking heads, archival photographs, and a persistent piano-driven score steadily flatten the film into repetitious sequences of facts, speculation, and reverie.
Dean comprehends Lamarr’s story through the lens of the actress’s lesser-known ambitions as an inventor. In 1942, in the midst of a lucrative contract at MGM, Lamarr and composer George Antheil were given a patent for creating a device that would resolve issues that the Navy had encountered with broken frequencies and torpedoes. However, the Navy declined to use their work, believing that Lamarr would be a greater asset selling war bonds and performing in U.S.O. shows. In later years, Lamarr and Anthiel’s work became the basis for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. While this event works as the inciting incident for this documentary, Dean remains beholden to a comprehensive perspective of Lamarr’s life that’s unwilling to spare the Hollywood angle to more thoroughly define the actress’s apparent brilliance as a scientist.
Bombshell is essentially a formulaic biopic in documentary garbs. Discussions of Lamarr’s work as a movie star are made into dutiful presentations of her most notable films, ranging from her breakout role in 1940’s Boom Town to her self-financed bomb Loves of Three Queens, released in 1954, which left her near bankruptcy. While acting undoubtedly defined Lamarr’s public and private life during the 1940s and ’50s, Dean makes little case for the cultural relevance of the movies spotlighted throughout—an oversight that becomes particularly egregious when a clip from 1942’s White Cargo, in which Lamarr plays an African seductress, comes and goes without any discussion of the film’s representation of race. The interviewees compliment Lamarr at the expense of analyzing her acting career as anything other than a fact of her life, meaning every clip is only instructive to the viewer as such.
Worse still is the film’s back half, which dispenses with the pretense of context altogether and takes a deep dive into Lamarr’s late-life struggles with money, depression, and abuse of plastic surgery. By wallowing in such details that seem eons away from Lamarr’s scientific interests and ambitions, the film becomes a gossip piece in which family members and various other associates state their subjective perceptions of Lamarr, like how “she was a woman of extremes.” Moreover, each of Lamarr’s six husbands is mentioned or shown in some capacity, with one family member describing Lamarr’s divorce from W. Howard Lee in 1960 as perhaps the lowest point in her life. For a documentary seemingly geared toward championing Lamarr as a model of female invention and persistence, Dean curiously steers toward surmising Lamarr’s psychological state as it pertained to love and pleasure, making Bombshell an altogether conventional and unfocused work on one of the forgotten women within the history of scientific innovation.