2019 | rated R | starring Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney | directed by Jay Roach | 1 hr 49 mins |
Director Jay Roach found his niche with the HBO TV movie Recount and has been making one kind of movie ever since. His concern, his targets and his perspective only flow in one direction, but he’s a fairly effective filmmaker and Bombshell might just be his best movie yet. Roach is not to be confused with Adam McKay, who also spins real world political scandals into highly entertaining dramedies, however, it really does look like Roach lifted McKay’s blue prints for The Big Short lock, stock and barrel and deploys them to make this Fox News takedown film as entertaining as possible. It’s moments of bristling broad caricatures get swept up in a snappy, briskly-paced and very watchable movie that simultaneously feels like a call to action and studio escapism.
The year is 2016. The year that the world turned upside down for people like Jay Roach. The place is the Fox News building a block from Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Our tour guide into this world is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who at the time was hosting a prime time show and decided to engage presidential candidate Donald Trump over his history with women against the advise of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Meanwhile, Ailes is bucking up against the dissenting views of anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) who is on her way out and the young, idealistic conservative Kayla (Margot Robbie) who is rising up the ranks. When Carlson sues the untouchable media mogul all hell breaks loose.
Roach diagrams the layout and inner workings of the Fox News building like soldier going behind enemy lines. The building a hot-house of piggish men and sex pests where everyone who isn’t a staunch, straight, Christian, Ailes-supporting conservative walks around on eggshells in fear. It feels both hyperbolic, almost too absurd to be true, like someone’s cartoon vision of what Fox News might be, but also works as solid movie world-building. It’s accounts are reportedly true, based on Carlson’s own book, but Roach’s film comes off like a exaggerated funhouse version of the truth.
While the movie finds it’s rebellion story in Carlson and it’s innocence-lost story in Kayla (a composite character), it’s Theron’s Megyn Kelly that is the most compelling. Kelly is depicted as smart, ruthless and grounded to principle over partisan. She is given a glimpse of all sides, but not quite the whole picture, of Roger Ailes’ career-making advise and instinct for TV to his obsession with legs, cult-like jokes and demeaning attitude and his utter paranoia with government and terrorism. She’s a mix of ambition and guilt and portrayed by Theron with perfect mimicry. Between Theron’s performance capturing Kelly’s huskier voice to the make-up job, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a movie go to such lengths to make an actor look exactly like the person they were portraying (Oldman in Darkest Hour maybe). It’s also interesting because that effort is entirely spent on Theron and Lithgow – who gets saddled with a Tim Burton Penguin costume to capture Roger Ailes. Nobody else in the movie even remotely looks like their real-life counterpart with on-screen text essential to identifying the people behind the Saturday Night Live level parody costumes. I assume that was Roach’s point. He cares so little about subjects beyond the 3 leads that it doesn’t matter that P.J. Byrne looks nothing like Neil Cavuto, Richard Kind is playing a bumbling Rudy Gulianni, the Geraldo Rivera stand-in is hilarious or Bill O’Reilly remains more fearful specter than character. It gets so over the top that had Ailes hobbled into frame lovingly cradling a bucket of live fish and one in his mouth I would not have blinked.
For all it’s posturing, Bombshell is incredibly entertaining. The running time flies by as Roach commands the pace and tone of it, zipping from real-life recreations to documentary-like graphics to pound home points about workplace toxicity and sexual harassment cover-ups. Some of it is horrifying with Roach leaving the sexual harassment mostly to our imagination and leaning on all of the subtle little things that add up to make a toxic environment. Employees watching their backs, ratting on each other, blowing off comments as jokes and letting a slow roll of compromises turn into a prison. It does work to a degree, but 2020’s The Assistant does a better job with this. In my look at that film, I worked through Kitty Green’s stark minimalist style and concluded it was one of the best ways to tell this story; that a Hollywood version of the corporate sexual harassment story border on overly glossy, sensational and self-aggrandizing. Bombshell is that movie. The Assistant wants us to think, Bombshell wants us to line up under the spigot and take whatever it gives us.
More often than not, Bombshell works more than it should due to the terrific performances of the 4 leads (including Lithgow), the galloping pace, glossy visuals and the inside-baseball look at Fox News. It may not be as effective as it thinks it is but it remains a very entertaining and highly watchable film.
Now, that we’ve looked at the spotlight Jay Roach shines on here, let’s throw up the house lights for a second and look at everything else.
Having a Hollywood studio make a movie condemning sexual harassment is as sanctimoniously tone deaf. Don’t look at the studio rapist behind the curtain here. In that sense, what Roach has made is almost cowardice deflective cover fire. He’s made a movie about Fox News because that’s the only sexual harassment story he’s allowed to make. He’s not going to make a movie about Harvey Weinstein at Miramax or Matt Lauer at NBC or Les Moonves at CBS or Kevin Spacey and on and on and on. So while Bombshell maybe a true and correct story, well-done, that condemns people worthy of condemnation, it’s also a drop in a ocean of propaganda that only goes one way. Each individual work adds up to collective propaganda where only Fox News is plagued with sexual harassment and celebratory documentaries like Client 9, Weiner, Hilary, Knock Down the House, Becoming and Good Trouble are the only ones that get made. While Bombshell depicts a Megyn Kelly that comes to terms with her role in allowing harassment to continue, nobody knows how to keep an open secret a secret better than Hollywood.