'Bombshell': Film Review

A smart, snappy depiction of the Fox News ogre getting his comeuppance.
12/13/2019

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow play, respectively, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Roger Ailes in Jay Roach's film about sexual harassment at Fox News, co-starring Margot Robbie.

It’s a subject so juicy that filmmakers just can’t stay away from it, especially not political junkies like Jay Roach and Charles Randolph. The director of Recount, Game Change, The Campaign, Trumbo and All the Way and the writer of The Big Short have, in Bombshell, set their sights on a powerful old lech and generate great delight in dramatizing his takedown. This live-wire yarn about the stunning downfall of the late Fox News despot Roger Ailes can’t claim to offer up fresh subject matter, as a recent television miniseries (Showtime's The Loudest Voice) and a very fine documentary (Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes) got there first. But the performances, enhanced by physical transformations by Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow that are uncannily convincing, deliver the goods in a very engaging way. Anyone who’s been following the news for the past three years couldn’t help but be intrigued by this firecracker of a film.

Without preamble, the movie tosses the viewer right into the high-pressure scramble of final preparations for the first televised debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, to be broadcast by Fox News and moderated by Megyn Kelly (Theron); she’s unsettled about the questions she’s restricted from asking Donald Trump and is feeling desperately ill in the bargain. But hold on, this is a movie and the woman we’re looking at really does look exactly like Megyn Kelly. The realism is uncanny.

Another of the network’s longtime stars, Gretchen Carlson, who has her own show, is played by Kidman. The third blonde at the top of the ticket doesn’t resemble anyone but Margot Robbie, but she has the excuse of playing a composite character, a gorgeous, naïve newcomer named Kayla, who before long suffers the misfortune of attracting the attention of Ailes. As embodied by Lithgow, Ailes has the distinction of looking fatter, grosser and a lot more like the real guy than Russell Crowe did earlier this year in The Loudest Voice.

If the physical attributes of the principals demand to be dwelled upon at some length, it’s because they loom large in the Fox scheme of things, a construct that Bombshell dissects and examines with considerable vigor. After decades during which American broadcast news was expected to maintain a certain balance and not indulge in outright partisanship — there was a thing called the fairness doctrine — Fox upended this decorum with its brash advocacy of conservative positions and overt catering to a right-wing public, often dispensed by attractive blondes. By the time of the 2016 election, the network was more powerful than ever and put all of its considerable muscle into championing Trump for president.

When Kayla turns up at Fox offices in New York, she seems like an ideal on-air candidate, both physically — she’s just Ailes’ type — and politically, as she comes from an evangelical Christian family. She’s also naïve and eager to please but paralyzed by Ailes, who offers women he’s interested in two phrases to thrive by: “To get ahead you have to give a little head” and “If you want to play with the big boys you have to lay with the big boys.” 

Bombshell — its double-entendre fully justified — dives right into this turbulent cesspool of sex and politics with confidence, enthusiasm and smarts. As he demonstrated in his Oscar-winning script (with Adam McKay) for The Big Short, Randolph is adept at stirring complicated and combustible real events and systems (economics, politics, gambling, sexual pressure) and using them to push the narrative forward at a relentless clip. Director Roach complements this by staying on his toes at all times, often using quick shots that seem grabbed on the fly, as befits power figures who know what they want, don’t waste time and are always hungry for more power no matter how well fed they are.

All the main characters here are fixated on power; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in this business. Trump himself doesn’t figure personally in the events of Bombshell and the election is still four months off. But Fox News at this point sees itself transitioning from power broker to a major power itself, very likely able to decisively influence the outcome of the coming election. 

Roach and Randolph use this energy and malign intent, which passes down from Ailes — or Jabba the Hut, as he’s called — to the film’s considerable benefit. Ailes has an all-knowing facilitator, an older woman (Holland Taylor) who discreetly arranges all the comings and goings to and from the big man’s office; boy, the stories she could tell. We also learn the network’s magic formula for success — "Frighten and titillate” — an approach Ailes has transformed into an art form. But what counts most for Ailes when it comes to great TV news coverage? Legs.

The dynamic drive and pace of the film can partly be attributed merely to the fact that the primary setting is a newsroom, where deadline-driven writers are constantly under pressure; infused with constant energy and tension, the Fox headquarters is effectively made to seem like the second-most consequential place on Earth, just short of the White House itself. It’s mentioned in passing that in the previous year the Murdochs made a $15 billion profit from Fox News alone, so it’s easy to see why the boss is well protected.

But with shocking speed, Humpty Dumpty has a great fall. It’s triggered by Ailes’ firing of the somewhat older on-air reporter Carlson, telling her, “You’re sexy, but you’re too much work.” Despite a big payout, she retaliates with a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes himself, hires the best lawyers and inspires numerous other women, including Kelly, to come forward with claims against the big boss. Ailes’ attorney Rudy Giuliani (the one famous figure in the cast who isn’t ideally matched physically, although his first appearance generates a huge laugh under the circumstances) steps into the fray, followed by Rupert Murdoch himself (Malcolm McDowell, just right) and his two sons. In short order, the big bosses deliver the edict: Jabba is out.

Bombshell doesn’t offer a deep or profound analysis of modern television, corporate doings or exploitative behind-closed-doors practices that have been going on since the beginning of time. But beyond creating a dynamic picture of a famous media entity in action, it strongly endorses the notion that, if people courageously stand up and speak out against impropriety and illegality, even against the rich and most privileged, justice can be done and progress can be made. You could even say it’s the modern cousin of a 1930s Frank Capra film like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, albeit much raunchier. 

The actors throw themselves into their roles with terrific zeal, enlivened by the often blunt dialogue and the issues at stake. The three women go through grueling personal trials and tests of strength in the very compressed period of time, all emerging stronger than they were before — even if the struggle might not have anything they would have willingly chosen to take on. Theron’s Kelly and Kidman’s Carlson are at distinctly different spots on the career spectrum, with Kelly at the red-hot center of things and Carlson perhaps moving past her peak. For her part, Robbie’s younger and fictional Kayla stands on the diving board, ready to jump — or be pushed — into the deep end.

Kate McKinnon delivers some strong moments as a young producer, although a bedroom scene she shares with Kayla isn’t well prepared for, its intimacy out of sync with anything else in the film.

Lithgow is memorably disgusting and predatory as the ultimate bad news boss as far as women were concerned. The only thing you can say for Ailes as portrayed here is that he’s upfront; he’s quite clear about the price of admission, and each woman decides whether or not to pay it. There’s enough of Ailes’ grossly abusive behavior on display to make it clear that the price is very high indeed.

Production companies: Bron Studios, Denver + Delilah Productions, Lighthouse Management & Media, Creative Wealth Media
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Producers: AJ Dix, Beth Kono, Charles Randolph, Jay Roach, Margaret Riley, Michelle Graham
Director of photography:  Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Jon Poll
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Casting: Allison Jones

Rated R, 108 minutes