A film review by Craig J. Koban January 6, 2020

BOMBSHELL  jjj

2019, R, 108 mins.

 

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly  /  Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson  /  Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil  /  John Lithgow as Roger Ailes  /  Allison Janney as Susan Estrich  /  Kate McKinnon as Jess Carr  /  Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch  /  Mark Duplass as Douglas Brunt  /  Alice Eve as Ainsley Earhardt  /  Alanna Ubach as Jeanine Pirro  /  Nazanin Boniadi as Rudi Bakhtiar

Directed by Jay Roach  /  Written by Charles Randolph

BOMBSHELL is the kind of culturally and historically relevant fact based drama the feels like it could have benefited from a long form mini-series treatment of its subject matter.  Made with slick and convincing proficiency by director Jay Roach (no stranger to helming politically charged films like RECOUNT and GAME CHANGE) and pitch perfectly acted by a trio of female leads, this chronicle of the termination of the Chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Roger Ailes in 2016 (after a series of multiple and damaging accusations of sexual misconduct in the workplace) is as compellingly topical as it gets for movies this year.  It's story of a seemingly untouchably powerful corporate man being brought down by the women he took advantage of, all taking place before the #MeToo movement even became a hashtag, but it certainly served as a preamble wake-up call to its inception.  Still, BOMBSHELL has a rushed and somewhat derivative style in relaying this ripped from the headlines narrative that holds it back from having true transcending dramatic power. 

That doesn't mean that Roach's film isn't intrinsically fascinating or worthy of big screen treatment, just that it need a bit more creative meat on its bones to feel more fully formed and satisfying.  Yet, there's simply no denying the potency and urgency of its reality based narrative (Ailes' termination came a full year after the A-bomb levels of shock and dismay with the Harvey Weinstein accusations and charges a year later for similar criminal misdeeds).  If anything, Ailes' firing marked the spark that ignited the fire of the #MeToo movement...and it has not looked back since.  BOMBSHELL centers us squarely in its story, circa 2016, during the time that Donald Trump was running for president, leaving Ailes (a nearly unrecognizable John Lithgow) growing giddier by the day over all of the ratings boost this controversial candidate will give to Fox News.  Prominent Fox on-air journalist Megyn Kelly (an equally unrecognizable Charlize Theron) is tasked by Ailes to cover Trump, and their fire and gasoline combination led to Trump very publicly and toxically lashing out against her on social media after she pushed him with some harder questions that he felt above answering. 

Concurrent to this is the tale of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), a then longtime staple of Fox News that's growing more intolerant and impatient each day with having to put of with deeply misogynistic co-hosts, not to mention the sexist treatment by Ailes himself.  With each passing day she grows more tired of the lame mantra of "boys will be boys" that taints Fox News and suffocates female TV personalities like her, and the straw the broke the camel's back for Carlson was a series of what she considered unfair demotions that led to her termination.  Appalled, Carlson elects to start a "bombshell" legal strike against Ailes by accusing him of rampant sexual harassment, and in doing so hopes to have other Fox women come forward to help lead the charge.  Kelly herself has a closeted history of being sexually abused by Ailes, but is too afraid to come forward for fear of ruining her career.  Then there's a greenhorn new Fox hire in Kayla (Margot Robbie), an evangelical woman that desires to build a bright and storied career with her company, hoping that he intrepid hard work will pay off.  She soon learns, to her shock and dismay, that the only way Ailes will promote her up the chain of command as a TV personality and journalist is if she allows his sexual predatory tendencies to be unleashed on her without resistance.  

 

 

It would only prove to be a matter of time before this powder keg of a situation blew sky high. 

The central message of BOMBSHELL is simple, but overwhelmingly crucial: women deserve to work in environments void of unsafe sexual advances being made upon them.  Screenwriter Charles Randolph (who also penned THE BIG SHORT and VICE) wisely understands that this film needs to be told from the female prerogative and exposes what it was like for Kelly and company to work for a corporation that made a name for itself for scandalous coverage and inspiring public division on hot current events.  The frightening prospect that these brave women faced moving forward with levying abuse claims on one of the most powerful CEOs in America moved well beyond occupational stress and fearing for their long-term employment under him.  It was also about exposing the worst underbelly of behind the scenes newsroom culture, and one that Ailes most certainly fostered in a climate of perpetual, intimating abuse on multiple levels.  And the manner that Ailes "chose" female talent - if this film is to be believed - had more to do with their physical assets than what they could bring to the table with their book smarts and tenacious drive for workplace excellence. 

Lithgow's portrayal of Ailes is chilling to the bone, showing an old and physically handicapped corporate leader that delighted in making or destroying women without a care in the world for their feelings and sense of security.  It's easy to label Ailes as kind of a one note villain in BOMBSHELL, but I struggle to see how this venomous man could ever be authentically humanized considering his crimes.  He's pretty rightfully shown as a vile manipulator who brazenly thought he was above the law because of the wealth and stature that his position has brought him.  He really represents every woman's worst job interview nightmare.  One of the finest and most uncomfortably harrowing scenes of BOMBSHELL - or any movie from the year that was, for that matter - shows Kayla having a private meeting with Ailes to prove to him that she has the drive, talent, and skills required to make it all the way to the top as a crackerjack producer.  Things turn south really fast for the poor woman when Ailes soft spokenly requests that she stands up and turns around so he can get a better look at her ("It's a visual medium," he pathetically explains to her).  Kayla grows more on edge by the minute, but also knows that refusing Ailes' advances could ruin her professional life in an instance.  His requests become more invasion, which builds to her pulling up her skirt...higher and higher...to the point where it becomes excruciating to witness.  He hasn't physically assaulted her, but the psychological damage runs tragically deep. 

BOMBSHELL has come under some fire for historical accuracy.  It should be noted that Kayla is not a real person, but a composite character based multiple real women.  The aforementioned scene in Ailes' office did not happen, per se, with this specific character in reality, but most certainly occurred with his many accusers.  If anything, Kayla serves as an audience conduit into this story of corporate abuse left initially unchecked, and Robbie's performance is a small masterpiece of performance economy.  She has to paint Kayla as a woman whose drive sometimes was sometimes superseded by workplace naiveté, but when the crushing reality of her denial of her thorny predicament weighs down on her and prompts admission, it's beyond heart breaking.  Working hand in hand with Kyla's story is a subplot involving her work BFF - and occasional lover - played extremely well in a small, but important role by Kate McKinnon, who leads a highly anxiety plaguing double life: she works at Fox news as a closeted homosexual liberal.  That's got to be terrifying. 

As the film unfolds it slowly becomes Kelly's narrative who's placed beyond a rock and a hard place in terms of working for a network that has given her everything in life, but is haunted by her own past horror stories of abuse by Ailes, and decides to act on them when motivated by Carlson's gutsy legal move.  That's essentially what BOMBSHELL builds towards: many women banding together to come forward with their tales of sexual harassment in an environment that all but made such actions nearly impossible.  Theron does an impeccably assured job of evoking in Kelly a headstrong and determined broadcaster that had little tolerance to put up with any BS from any man in power (especially after Trump's belittling Twitter rants targeting her as a "bimbo" that "anger menstruated"), but knew that with Ailes' shadow hovering over her she had few options to deal wit it.  Beyond her incredibly immersive performance as Kelly, the makeup team for BOMBSHELL deserves serious Oscar consideration for how they physically transformed Theron into an eerily accurate approximation of Kelly.  This also extends to the tour de force prosthetics given to Lithgow to make him look obese, sickly, and old.  Most makeup of this nation comes off as obvious and distraction, but here it's miraculously convincing. 

I almost forgot about Kidman as Carlson, and she's quite rock solid here as well, albeit with a much more disappointingly underwritten role than Robbie and Theron were given, which is too bad.  The strife that Carlson faces here packs a sizeable and relatable wallop, even though the screenplay could have afforded her more depth and development.  On top of this, my one other overwhelming complaint I have with BOMBSHELL is its stylistic trappings mirror what was on display in VICE and THE BIG SHORT, featuring an exploration of tragedy through the viewfinder of absurd comedy via, in turn, some cheeky fourth wall breaking by Kelly and company that sometimes awkwardly comes, disappears, and then is inconsistently re-introduced back when the film conveniently requires it.  I don't think this aesthetic works as well here in BOMBSHELL overall, even though some early scenes of Kelly speaking directly to the audience and giving them a sometimes amusingly unfiltered tour of Fox news HQ is kind of brilliantly executed.  Beyond that, when the film ends you do gain a good impression of the magnitude of Ailes' sacking and the major personal victories that his accusers shared, but BOMBSHELL doesn't really give us that much more insight than what a TV movie of the week might have offered. 

Yet, I'm given this movie a recommendation for three main reasons, despite some of my misgivings: (1) It tells an involving story about a most crucial turning point in the history of workplace harassment culture, and one that shapes our present times, (2) Theron, Robbie, and Kidman are an un qualified dynamic trio in this film, with the former two given Oscar nomination worthy turns, and (3) it's a rare portrait into a damning side of news media straight from women's perspectives.  And witnessing these women team up to overcome agonizingly hostile odds to expose a monster in their midst...that took insane courage that should be respected. 

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