Review: Based on the real-life drama at Fox News, ‘Bombshell’ explodes on the screen
“Bombshell” is exploding at just the right moment. A ferociously entertaining dramatization of how an unlikely group of women exposed and deposed media titan Roger Ailes, it is as harrowing as it is triumphant in its depiction of the way it all came to pass.
This is not the first drama about workplace sexual harassment (don’t miss 2018’s superb Israeli “Working Woman”) but it is the one that will have the most impact, in part because of the double meaning of its title.
For, witness 1933’s “Bombshell,” an inside-Hollywood satire starring the glamorous Jean Harlow, the word once referred to attractive women. And because the new “Bombshell” focuses on on-camera Fox News personalities, it gives rich parts to no less than three splendid actresses: Charlize Theron (who also produced), Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.
Also central to the film’s accomplishment is the collaboration of two men who’ve had individual success turning complex current-events material into involving cinema but have never collaborated before.
Engaged first was writer Charles Randolph, winner of an Oscar for “The Big Short,” who has written a smart, fast-moving script that feels behind-the-scenes real, a scenario that will both make you laugh and cause the laughter to freeze in your throat.
Director Jay Roach, who began in comedies, has done several richly involving political dramas, including “Recount,” about the Bush/Gore imbroglio, and the Emmy-winning “Game Change,” about Sarah Palin.
His direction here is sharp and purposeful, the result of Roach knowing exactly what film he wanted to make and just how to make it. Alternately enjoyable and disquieting, “Bombshell” may sound self-congratulatory but it is anything but. What we see of what was experienced under Ailes’ malign rule is too disturbing for that.
Intent on getting and holding our attention, “Bombshell” starts with a bravura moment. It’s Aug. 6, 2015, just hours before the first Republican presidential debate, and after we see top Fox personality Megyn Kelly (Theron) read an incendiary item about candidate Donald Trump, the frame freezes and Kelly says in voice-over, “Here’s the one thing you probably know about me: I have a big mouth.”
Next follows a kind of Cook’s tour of Fox’s New York headquarters, with Kelly, aided by Barry Ackroyd’s superbly mobile cinematography, walking us around and filling us in on who’s who and what’s where with breaking-the-fourth-wall glee.
This initial visit to what we will come to see as a kind of hell (“She is our Dante,” Randolph has said) emphasizes the film’s verisimilitude in both surroundings (credit production designer Mark Ricker, who worked inside the former Los Angeles Times offices in downtown L.A. to re-create Fox News) and costumes (four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood).
Because its beats are subtle compared to her previous performances like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it’s easy to underestimate Theron’s exceptional work here. Aided by delicate prosthetics from the wizardly Kazu Hiro and extensive voice coaching, she completely transforms into the commanding, steely Kelly, confident in herself yet unprepared for the storm that is to come.
It’s Kelly who introduces us to Roger Ailes, master of all he surveys, who soon enough is on the phone asking, “What did you do to piss off Trump” and insisting, “We need him. Clean this up now.”
Though Ailes is revealed to be, to put it mildly, a man of savage temper and strongly held beliefs, “Bombshell” in the early going shows moments of his supportive behavior, like telling Kelly after she confronts Trump at the debate about his attitude toward women, “That was good TV. I’m proud of you, Megyn.”
If “Bombshell” has an essential acting resource, it is John Lithgow’s deeply convincing work as Ailes, a performance that does not shy away from the man’s complexities or his thuggish abrasiveness.
Using Hiro’s prosthetics to their best advantage, Lithgow makes sure we understand the person who seethes under the Jabba the Hutt taunts, who is all too aware the world sees him as “old, fat and ugly” but who can’t seem to comprehend that absolute power has corrupted him absolutely.
Though “Bombshell” takes no position on the conservative bent of Fox News, it also makes clear that the three women whose stories it follows are nothing if not true believers. They are not rebels, and as is indicated in a nifty moment when they silently share an elevator ride, they are anything but friends.
Yet it is the business of “Bombshell” to deftly weave their stories together, to move from one to the other and back again as they are drawn into the same vortex. Though some incidents and moments have admittedly been invented, the atmosphere of a workplace where harassment was bred in the bone is unmistakably true to life.
Introduced after Kelly is Fox News veteran Gretchen Carlson, impeccably played by Kidman, a woman who does not hesitate to tell us right off the bat that she is a former Miss America and graduated summa cum laude from Stanford.
We are witness to Ailes subjecting Carlson to a humiliating tongue-lashing (“No one wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweating her way through menopause”) and, most unexpectedly, see her consulting with a pair of attorneys about a plan to sue Ailes personally to stop what she feels has been a culture of demeaning sexual intimidation.
The last person we meet, the naively ambitious Kayla Pospisil, is a fictional composite, yet as sensitively conveyed by Robbie at her best, the arc of her story is so crushing that it stays with you the longest.
A former TV weather person from Florida who comes from an evangelical family and has designs on becoming “an influencer in the Jesus space,” Kayla is more of an innocent in the Fox universe than she realizes.
Fellow newsroom employee Jess Carr (an engaging Kate McKinnon) tries to mentor her, but Kayla maneuvers herself into a private meeting with Ailes, only to realize, in a heartbreaking sequence, that she is fatally in over her head.
Though the movie’s Carlson is no friend of Kayla’s, it is women like her that she is thinking of when she explains to her attorneys that she’s suing because “someone has to speak up, someone has to get mad,” if the situation at Fox News is going to change.
For her suit to succeed, she’s told, she has to show a pattern. “I’m telling you,” Carlson insists, “other women will come forward.” But will they? It’s in this adroit marriage of socially conscious drama with nail-biting suspense and dark satire that “Bombshell” comes into its own.
The year’s best movies are led by the hit true story that proved audiences will still support adult dramas.
Rating: R, for sexual material and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: AMC Century City, ArcLight Hollywood; in general release Dec. 20
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