Premise: A group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.
In the final title card before the credits roll on Bombshell, it states that Roger Ailes was the highest-profiled figure to be taken down from sexual harassment, “and he won’t be the last”. This message of hope is certainly earned after the film that preceded it, but it’s the overall way it was handled that prevents it from really sticking. The film opens with a fourth-wall breaking monologue from Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) to get us all up to speed on the inner workings of the Fox News network where she anchors her own conservative talk show – Bombshell begins in the early days of the Republican presidential primaries and runs roughly up to the election. Because this is 2019 and we’re living in a post-The Big Short world (no surprise that Bombshell was written by Charles Randolph, the Oscar-winning co-writer of the former), I suppose it’s now mandatory for all films with semi-complex true stories to include some direct to camera speeches, breaking down the ideas at work into easily digestible chunks. But after the beginning, these self-aware moments, including some internal monologues from some characters and a weird visual moment, fall by the wayside in order to tell a more straightforward story. Which ultimately end up being a wise decision from director Jay Roach because those moments just feel like dead weight.
The real draw here are the performances of its three leads: Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie. Theron in particular shines as Megyn Kelly; it would be difficult enough to mimic her distinct baritone voice and mannerisms, but Theron also nails her confidence and uncertainty. She can go toe to toe with anyone else at the network, but she’s smart enough to know when to rattle a cage and when to keep quiet. There’s a moment late in the film when Kelly is told some unexpected news over a headset while being told not to react at the same time. Her face is a stone wall, but Theron does a masterful job of showing the gears turning behind her eyes. Kidman, meanwhile, acts as the catalyst as Gretchen Carlson, who was the first to accuse Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. Kidman is capable, as always, but the emotional heavy lifting is mostly done by the other two stars.
One of Roach and Randolph’s smarter decisions was to cast Margot Robbie not as a real person but an amalgamation of Roger Ailes’ numerous accusers. Robbie has always excelled at playing characters with wide-eyed enthusiasm, like in her other great 2019 performance as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, which makes her arc here that much more heartbreaking. She begins the film as a fresh-faced idealist hoping to get by not on her good looks but on her breadth of knowledge. All of that changes after the film’s most devastating scene, when she gets called into Ailes’ office and he asks her to continually hike up her skirt. Any time she smiles throughout the rest of the film, the pain behind her eyes is palpable. Her friendship with a closeted lesbian staffer played by Kate McKinnon is genuinely tender and welcome.
One of the film’s recurring bits – mostly spouted from Ailes himself – is how television is a visual medium; he’s constantly demanding the female anchors show more skin, and bursts into the control room to widen the view so that the viewers can see their legs better. John Lithgow disappears into the role (and under layers and layers of prosthetics) of Ailes, an angry, paranoid pervert who knows he has the money, status, and power to create and destroy careers. He did, after all, essentially help elect Donald Trump. A lethal drinking game could be made of all the times Roger Ailes’ name is mentioned, but it’s almost metaphorical: he’s the specter whose presence is felt all around the network physically or emotionally, haunting everyone, in one way or another.
You may be wondering how much accountability Roach places at the feet of these right wing propagandists for their contribution to today’s national discourse. And the answer is frustratingly not enough. Kelly had an infamous moment where she refers to Santa Claus as white, but the camera simply glides by it as a character watches on screen. Almost every Fox News personality is introduced at one point or another, but there are simply so many of them (all Caucasian, of course), that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. There is a clever bit of dialogue after an interview when Kelly says “tell me my big mouth didn’t ruin our life” and her husband (Mark Duplass) responds “not yet”, subtly referring to the incident that ended her second TV career on NBC in 2018.
Understated moments like this are unfortunately few and far between, though. It seems that throughout most of the film, Roach either doesn’t trust the audience, or feels it necessary to handle everything with kid gloves. Take the aforementioned internal narrations, for instance: the thoughts the characters express are clearly visible on the more-than-capable actor’s faces. Later, Megyn Kelly has an infamous interaction during a debate with Donald Trump. When she asks him about his (still to this day) sordid history with women, one of the women in the control room immediately comments “she’s calling him out”. Aside from these hand-holding moments, Bombshell has hardly anything new to say that couldn’t already have been seen in newspapers or on the evening news. Yes, it’s good to get a first-person perspective on these events, and the performances are all worthwhile, but I was left wanting more. The events of the film are so confined to the world of Fox News that it almost makes the #MeToo movement seem exclusive to that building. But, as we all especially know now, this could not be farther from the truth.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.