Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015, there have been many movies dealing with our current cultural issues, such as racism, immigration and sexism. However, there have been surprisingly few that have tackled any of these things head on, looking at a real situation from this time period to comment on where we are or where we are going. The drama Bombshell does exactly that. It tells the story of how the sexual harassment claims that ended the career of Fox News architect Roger Ailes came to light. The movie addresses not only what happened at Fox, but the pressure these women faced, both to speak out and to keep quiet.
It was directed by Jay Roach, best known for his work in comedy. The screenwriter was Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016 for cowriting The Big Short. This uses the rapid-fire pacing seen there in a way that reflects the chaos of a newsroom. It does not always make for the smoothest ride, though the story it is telling is far from smooth. While he occasionally overreaches or steps on his actor’s toes during big moments, this is still an entertaining, thoughtful and very timely production.
Bombshell (104 minutes, without the end credits) focuses on three different women who played significant roles in taking down Ailes. Nicole Kidman is Gretchen Carlson, a morning show host who was demoted to a worse timeslot. She believes it was because she stood up to the sexism of her coworkers. As the movie begins, she is meeting with lawyers to make a plan for going public with a lawsuit against Ailes. Kidman plays her as a woman who feels the need to fight, as a representative of her gender. It is an unfortunately repetitive role, positioning her as the only woman brave enough to come forward. Kidman does what she can with it, but there just is not enough depth to it to really sell that idea.
Charlize Theron is Megyn Kelly, one of the more popular Fox News hosts at the time. She is embroiled in a one-sided feud with Donald Trump over her confronting him about his problematic history with women during a debate. She has a much more complex relationship with Ailes that allows him to showcase his human side. Theron handles the plot’s heavy lifting. She is able to deliver exposition without it feeling like that is what she is doing. She makes Kelly a complicated person, caught between playing it safe for the good of her career and standing up to the forces oppressing her.
Then there is Kayla (a fictional creation based on the experiences of several other female Fox News employees), portrayed with unabashed excitement by Margot Robbie. She is new to the team, trusts in their message and is desperate to get on tv. This puts her directly in the crosshairs of the domineering Ailes. Robbie is the naïve young woman who cannot believe the horror stories she has heard. The part starts off simple, making her eventual realization more powerful (though not as powerful as it should have been). The three of them are symbolic of the beginning, middle and end of what it was like for a woman working for Ailes.
Roger Ailes is given life by John Lithgow. The most impressive thing Randolph’s screenplay does is staying away from making him a one-dimensional villain. He is, undoubtedly, a bad guy. However, Lithgow takes the opportunity to display his gentler aspects. As long as his power is respected, and loyalty is proven, he will give it right back. He is protective of his people and affectionate toward his wife. For me, showing he is more than his worst actions does not normalize abhorrent behavior; it makes the awful things he does even worse. His sexism, manipulations and assaults are especially terrible because it is apparent he can be kind when he wants to be. Lithgow plays him as someone obsessed with control, to the point where he feels justified abusing it the way he does. He steers clear of caricaturing Ailes, making the negative portrayal quite effective.
Bombshell is about power through fear and speaking truth to that power. Jay Roach tells this story with the pacing of a screwball comedy. It flies from scene-to-scene, using fourth wall breaking narration and on-screen graphics to show how all of this escalated. This approach brings a lot of energy, yet it also makes it difficult to engage with the performances on an emotional level. It never slows down long enough to breathe. Most of the way, this is not too big of a problem. However, a couple important events take place offscreen (one for Carlson, one for Kelly) and Kayla’s low point, when she admits her illusions have been shattered, leaving her a shell, was edited in a way that severely dilutes the impact of what Robbie is doing. For some reason, in the middle of her moment, it cuts to a reaction shot of the person she is talking to. It kills the drama by distracting us from her pain, which is, after all, what the movie is raging against.
That type of thing happens a few times; Roach using a close-up to make an obvious point or moving too fast for something to have the sting he wants it to. Even with these flaws, Bombshell mostly works. It is not just a simple retelling. It wants us to relate, learn and be furious that this still goes on. It succeeds enough of the time, sometimes because of the presentation, sometimes despite it, to make it worth a view.
3½ out of 5
Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly
Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson
Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil
John Lithgow as Roger Ailes
Kate McKinnon as Jess Carr
Allison Janney as Susan Estrich
Connie Britton as Beth Ailes
Mark Duplass as Doug Brunt
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Charles Randolph