THE STORY – A revealing look inside the most powerful and controversial media empire of all time and the explosive story of the women who brought down the infamous man who created it.
THE CAST – Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney & Margot Robbie
THE TEAM – Jay Roach (Director) & Charles Randolph (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
“Bombshell” opens how you might expect a film written by the Oscar-winning co-writer of “The Big Short” to open: A whirlwind tour of the building that houses the Fox News Studios, delivered by its once-shining star, Megyn Kelly. It’s an energetic insider look, tossing out corporate lingo so fast you can barely get a handle on it, but the important information sticks: The newsroom and offices are in the basement, and on the second floor is Roger Ailes. Other administrative offices, too, but when people say “the second floor,” what they mean is Roger. It’s a pretty big gambit of an opening, throwing everyone into the deep end of the conservative news channel and its inner workings, but it captures the rush of working for a broadcast news network, where everything is happening all the time and it all must be up-to-the-second. It’s also the only time “Bombshell” is ever this fast-paced or kinetic, a decision that is very much to the film’s benefit.
That’s because this isn’t the story of Fox News, but rather the story of women taken advantage of by men at the network, up to and including Roger Ailes himself. Once “Bombshell” gets the snark and levity out of the way in the first ten minutes or so (it weasels its way in later, too, in an attempt to relieve tension, but doesn’t always work), it settles, focusing on the three women at the story’s center, and how their lives are determined by the men who surround them. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman who bristles at the sexism she sees and experiences (Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson); a woman who toes the company line in order to get the career she wants, but finds herself getting testier about it every day (Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly); or a young woman just starting out who wants to make a name and career for herself, but is completely unprepared for what that means (Margot Robbie as a composite character named Kayla Pospisil). None of these women are immune to the rampant misogyny at Fox News, and all of them, individually, are powerless to stop it. When Carlson decides to meet with attorneys and go public with her accusations of sexual harassment, she’s warned that her speaking out will mean nothing unless others come forward. But she’s hit her breaking point and has to believe that her colleagues will come forward to speak up as she does.
But they don’t. In fact, most of the women who work at Fox News rally around Ailes, who gave them jobs and made them famous, instead of the woman standing up for what’s right. Randolph’s script never really delves into why they did so, choosing instead to look at something larger: The mob mentality of those who watch Fox News and those who make it. It’s an unexpected choice, but one that goes a long way towards reminding the audience that these women are simultaneously victims of sexual harassment and perpetrators of some of the lowest moments of journalism this century. It’s a tricky line to walk, but the film mostly gets it right, helped immeasurably by its performances, particularly the central trio of Theron, Kidman, and Robbie.
To say that Kidman is the least of the three does her a great disservice, as she simply has the least showy part. Despite neither looking nor sounding much like Carlson, she delivers a perfectly modulated performance, always letting just the right amount of fire out and keeping just the right amount of fire in, as she goes through every devastating step of the legal process. She’s the guts of the film, pure forward motion with nerves of steel. Theron plays Megyn Kelly as the brains of the film, constantly analyzing what’s going on around her and calculating her next move. Much has been made of her performance’s transformative properties, but to my eyes and ears, Theron has always looked and sounded close enough to Kelly that her casting in the role was a no-brainer. It’s the part she was born to play, and she turns that promise into a fascinating portrayal of a woman at a turning point in her life, fully aware of the consequences of her decisions past, present, and future. Theron’s Kelly wears an implacable mask of a face, protecting herself from what she knows is out there, and from what she knows people will say about her, but she brilliantly shows the audience every single crack. It’s a surprising, masterful performance in a tricky part.
If Kidman is the guts of the film, and Theron the brains, then Margot Robbie is its heart, wearing her emotions on her sleeve right from the start. Handed the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes of the film, Robbie delivers a performance of heart-stopping vulnerability. Kayla is young and ambitious, from a conservative family who lives and breathes Fox News, who thinks she knows what she wants and will do anything to get it. But she quickly finds that she’s in over her head, dealing with things her upbringing hasn’t prepared her for. Tasked with playing, essentially, everywoman, Robbie is a gale force of emotions. Her big eyes invite you in and effortlessly make you feel every little bit of what she’s feeling.
And then, there’s John Lithgow. Roger Ailes is a big personality, and Lithgow doesn’t shy away from big theatrics when the scene calls for it. For the most part, however, his performance is surprisingly quiet, choosing to emphasize the insidiousness of Ailes’ beliefs and actions. He’s a snake in the grass, drawing you in with a friendly demeanor and close attention until he turns on a dime and pounces, unleashing his sharp, poisonous teeth, which infect everything they touch (except, seemingly, his wife, played with razor-sharp satirical precision by Connie Britton). In the film’s centerpiece scene, a private meeting between Ailes and Kayla, Lithgow takes venality to another level, making even the sound of his breathing the stuff of nightmares.
“Bombshell” is sure to bring out a lot of emotions in viewers. Director Jay Roach approaches the narrative’s sensitive subject matter with a steady hand, fully aware of just how much he can push the audience without pushing them away. He also knows just how much he can push the characters so that they don’t become caricatures. These are fully fleshed-out, well-rounded female characters, presented with all their flaws and all their strengths. They each have their own distinctive voices, and together, they represent a full portrait of modern womanhood: The heart to empathize with others and feel when you’ve been wronged, the brains to think through your options, and the guts to stand up and make your voice be heard. Only when these three things come together – when women, as a group, stand together – can justice be achieved. “Bombshell” feels this deeply, and that message comes through, loud and clear.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Tremendous performances and a timely, empathetic story of women trying to decide where the line is in their personal and professional lives.
THE BAD – Plays a lot with tone and doesn’t always land it just right.