It’s difficult to make a horrific story complicated, honest, even funny, and yet Bombshell has blown away expectations to be a fresh, layered film just in time for awards season.
For those of you who saw Showtime’s The Loudest Voice— and for those of you who haven’t–Bombshell similarly focuses on Fox News titan Roger Ailes’ network culture of sexual harassment and lewd propositions. There’s an obvious disclaimer: this is a film about politics, sex, abuse, Trump, and fake news. Not everyone is going to agree with how deeply the film addresses certain topics or the depictions of public figures (although Richard Kind’s turn as a sweaty Rudy Giulani had a resoundingly hilarious reaction), but Bombshell knows what it’s doing. It would be so much easier for the film to write off Fox News as a mindless news-free abyss with a wink towards the audience, but by doing that, the true story of what these women endured would also be entirely diminished. This is a story about manipulation; this is sexual harassment and in some cases, assault. And it can happen to anyone– yes, even a Republican.
Director Jay Roach is familiar with depicting true right wing stories, including Recount and Game Change, and even fictional conservative ones like comedy The Campaign. Most recently Roach was behind the Academy Award-nominated biopic Trumbo. With Bombshell, though, Roach has done what writer-director Adam McKay fell short of last year in telling a multilayered true story (without inserts of alligator footage, no less). A tight script by Charles Randolph, who also co-wrote McKay’s stronger The Big Short, finds its footing early on and soars with the right balance of exposition, tension, and humor, where appropriate.
What Bombshell does right is place its women first: a trifecta of talent, leading ladies Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie thrive onscreen.
We meet an almost unrecognizable Theron as Megyn Kelly, her long blonde locks perfectly coiffed as she gives viewers a tour of Fox News in her signature raspy voice ahead of the 2015 Presidential Debate. An anonymous male compliments Kelly’s outfit–twice– while passing by and she just sighs at the camera, reassuring the audience that “he’s not horny, he’s just ambitious.” Kelly is the only female anchor with her own primetime show, and everyone knows her power, at least on her floor. Kelly explains that the glistening beacon of Republicanism in which her office is held is also home to Roger Ailes’ (John Lithgow) private office two floors above, Dow Jones and Company, the Wall Street Journal, and then finally the real boss, Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell). Ailes’ White House history is briefly explained, as well as his butting heads with Murdoch and his two sons over allegiance to then-candidate Trump. Kelly’s outspokenness and hopes to challenge Trump during the debate is encouraged by Ailes, and what Bombshell smartly does is not present Ailes as a monster at first. Kelly and Ailes in the first act of the film have a rapport, an understanding much like a gruff father figure, yet to Ailes, the relationship is more allegorical to an owner and his prized racehorse.
Casting the lovable Lithgow as Ailes only adds to the deceivingly charismatic approach, one that cracks every few minutes with rumors and allegations, and finally culminates in proof of his true hideous intentions. Kelly has his respect now, but at what cost from the past?
Kelly’s success is juxtaposed with an aging Gretchen Carlson (a stunning Nicole Kidman) who has been demoted to an afternoon anchor position for trying to be *gasp* more liberal, like saying automatic rifles maybe should be regulated and also opting to go makeup-free while on air. It’s Carlson who instigates the now-famous lawsuit against Ailes that inevitably ousted him from Fox News in public disgrace.
Kelly’s success is also eyed by Carlson’s assistant, a fictitious Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie, utter perfection), who has grown up watching Fox News while clutching her prominent gold cross. The ambitious Pospisil secures a promotion to The O’Reilly Factor where she connects with Jess Carr (scene-stealing Kate McKinnon), a closeted Democrat who explains Fox News was the only place that hired her. The trap of having Fox News on a resume is what seems to feed into the cycle: once you’re there, you’re branded and can never leave. Ailes is the king, Fox News his castle, and women who don’t care to kneel before him in “loyalty” will be banished and blacklisted. In one of the final scenes, though, it is Ailes who is shut out, the drawbridge of Sixth Avenue closed to his private car and concerned wife (Connie Britton).
The higher-ups, namely Ailes and later Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff), knew this and took advantage of the system they created, promising success to those who were willing to pay the price. ” ‘To get ahead, you have to give a little head’,” Carlson reminisces to her lawyers as what to what Ailes required for a woman to get a promotion at Fox News.
This is shown in Pospisil’s encounter with Ailes, herself hoping to be plucked out from the staff to receive her own show. Robbie’s quiet tears and quivering fear is hauntingly superb in her portrayal of the attack. As she later retells– and relives– the event to Carr on the phone, her heaving discomfort is palpable, even moving.
The facts you can easily look up. Why you should see Bombshell is because it’s at once deeply disturbing and deeply fascinating. How the Fox News women treated one another– Carr claiming she couldn’t hear Pospisil’s story in fear of her losing her job; the jealousy of those who were “selected” to be harassed; Carlson and Kelly’s icy distance; and Kelly encouraging other victims to come forward before she spoke out herself– is what this film truly is about. It’s easy to point at a monster of a man; it’s harder to ask why and how his reign was possible.
Bombshell is the perfect way for Kidman and Robbie to end their huge respective years, with Kidman off of her Emmy-winning turn in Big Little Lies and Robbie in one of the best pictures of 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. For Theron, though, to whom this film secretly belongs to, Bombshell is a reminder that her talent can be quiet and unassuming but is unequivocally all-powering.
The ensemble supporting cast, including Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Stephen Root, and an always-perfect Allison Janney, are boosted even further with blink-and-you-miss-them cameos by D’Arcy Carden, Ashley Greene, Alice Eve, and P.J. Byrne.
Come for the story, stay for the complex treatment of gender and political alliances, and remember Bombshell for the performances. It’s not lighthearted, but then again, neither is Star Wars.