By Elias Savada.
The stars are blondly aligned: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, as three of the many victims of the “real scandal” at Fox News on which Charles Randolph’s screenplay is based. John Lithgow goes on the broadside as Roger Ailes, the ugly sleaze of a human for whom the actor is enveloped in overstuffed makeup and wardrobe to portray the chauvinistic centerpiece at the popular network. Jay Roach, best known for his work on the Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers films, but who also tackled indignity-driven themes in the made-for-television films Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), is behind the camera. His last commercial film was Trumbo in 2015, but that examination of the blacklisted screenwriter and novelist is remembered more for Bryan Cranston’s performance (earning a Best Actor nomination at the 88th Academy Awards). The film was criticized for misrepresenting events and people in the author’s life. Do you even remember it?
Sadly, what Bombshell needs is an Adam McKay at the helm. McKay successfully jumped from broad comedy (Anchorman) to high-profile winners like The Big Short (co-written by Randolph) and Vice. No such directorial flair bubbles forth here, even if Roach mimics some of McKay’s antics, like the occasional breaking of the fourth wall.
Despite the stew of high-powered talent, I couldn’t get boiled up by the film, a reaction not helped by the fact that I despise the right-wing media that bills itself as fair and balanced. I tried to stay impartial above the conservative setting within the film, as the #MeToo movement is so important for everyone to support. As beautiful as the acclaimed actresses are here, I had trouble with their belated conviction, even though I know their slow-boiling angst played out like this in real life, as if hypnotized by a Svengali-like autocrat. If you’re looking for a “damn you” moment in Bombshell, the big explosion never happened for me. I was hoping for a cherry bomb, but the result was just a sparkler.
The hand-held camerawork tries to imbue a documentary-like atmosphere here, as it floats between the overlapping storylines covering Fox news correspondent Megyn Kelly (Theron), Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), an evangelical millennial who shares a cubicle with Jess Carr (SNL‘s Kate McKinnon), a lesbian and closeted liberal who has managed to steer her own ship in the turbulent waters at Fox. Their friendship is the most satisfying in the film.
For Robbie’s fictional character, a behind-the-scenes staffer from a deeply religious family (“Fox (News) is how we do church”) her ambitions are turned on their head when Ailes takes a fancy to her. There’s a sadness in her stride every time she passes by the desk of the Fox News chairman’s undisturbed gatekeeper (Holland Taylor).
But the harassment movement is what Bombshell posits front and center as the film moves through its fairly chronological threads, cemented by Carlson’s discrimination lawsuit, which, no surprise, is dismissed by many at Fox – men and women – as untrue. It’s easy to spot the correlation between the powers at the top at the media conglomerate and the politicians who continue to blindly follow its bidding.
Another problem is that the film feels too manufactured toward Awards contention. Aside from Lithgow’s prosthetic makeup, Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognizable behind the silicon transformations from Vivian Baker and Kazu Hiro. The cosmetic magicians also played with Kidman’s appearance (eyelids, nose tip, chin, and jaw pieces), as well as Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani, and Tony Plano as Geraldo Rivera.
As remarkable as their technical work is, the makeup and costume results can be a distraction from the plot. Moreover, just as the viewer tries to get used to the disconcerting look of the cast, the filmmakers toss in pieces of archival footage of the real perpetrators and victims.
The sexual harassment exposé that is Bombshell showcases too beautiful talent in an empowerment-wins-in-the-end scenario, peppered by Regina Spektor’s One Little Soldier as the film concludes, making sure that viewers get riled about the need for change. Sadly, I doubt the folks at Fox News (and other networks – an associate producer at CBS News’ 60 Minutes just filed a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit) are truly getting the message.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).