'Bombshell' review: Charlize Theron takes on Megyn Kelly, Roger Ailes, Fox News — with some help
One week after the tepid box office reception for "Richard Jewell," a well-acted, sneakily political, fact-adjacent drama of no little controversy, here comes "Bombshell" — another well-acted, sneakily political and fact-adjacent picture, representing the other side of what's left of the aisle in this country.
It's hard to assess the current working order of the checks and balances in our government. Hollywood, on the other hand, appears to be working the seesaw pretty well.
Like "Richard Jewell," "Bombshell" dramatizes a radioactive chunk of the very recent past. It's set in 2015 and 2016, taking us behind the slick, panicky facade of Fox News. Trump's presidential bid looms large in the background. CEO Roger Ailes, former Republican political operative, reigns as king of the hill, surrounded by his hand-picked cadre of trim, blonde, loyal on-air talent.
That loyalty came at a price. One of the cable network's stars, Megyn Kelly, weathered Ailes' sexual harassment for years; then, when she asked tougher-than-usual questions in a 2015 Republican presidential debate, candidate Trump fired back with the menstrual blood wisecrack heard 'round the world.
Kelly's travails, and her eventual decision to reveal her history of Ailes-related harassment, takes up roughly a third of the picture. Another third deals with "Fox & Friends" host Gretchen Carlson, likewise serially harassed by her boss. Carlson got the ax, and she responded by filing her sexual harassment lawsuit not against the network but against Ailes. That caught the attention of everyone at Fox, especially those who'd been harassed themselves.
Like many freely fictionalized docudramas, "Bombshell" creates a new character for audience-identification purposes. The third protagonist is a bright if naive Fox production assistant with ambitions. This "millennial evangelical" conservative Christian, named Kayla Pospisil, becomes friend, confidante and lover of another invented character, a Fox staffer who's a discreet lesbian and — yikes! — a liberal.
The squirmiest sequence in director Jay Roach's film takes place in Ailes' inner sanctum, where he has invited Kayla, just his type, to come up and talk about her career. He beseeches her to "do a little twirl" for him, as part of his informal anchor interview process. This leads to his request that she hike up her skirt, higher and higher. The mood is hushed, furtive and, for Kayla, the encounter becomes a lasting source of shame. It's also the impetus for the rest of "Bombshell" and its account of how these three women, two real and one fictional, helped bring down Ailes.
The cast is strong and wily enough to paper over every flaw, overstatement and simplification. Charlize Theron captures the demeanor, vocal timbre and unblinking intensity of Megyn Kelly like a boss, with the help of some stunningly subtle prosthetics to give her that certain special "Fox's henhouse" look. Nicole Kidman's Gretchen Carlson is more of a stealth performance, clean and effective in her technique, dropping the mask, memorably, when no one's around to see her rage. As Kayla, Margot Robbie enjoys the freedom of playing the film's liveliest character, the one with the most radical change in temperament and direction. (She has a very fine scene partner in Kate McKinnon.)
Roach is no stranger to this sort of political/media whirlwind; for HBO, he directed the 2008 "Recount" and the 2012 Sarah Palin portrait "Game Change." I prefer the relatively straightforward way Roach handles these sorts of movies to the way Adam McKay, a step or two up the Hollywood ladder, whips up comic snark in "The Big Short" and "Vice." But "Bombshell," featuring a cartoonishly sleazy John Lithgow encased in latex as Ailes, holds your attention without really getting into anything too risky or, in the case of Theron's Kelly, remotely skeptical.
"Bombshell" focuses on the summer of 2016, near the end of Kelly's Fox tenure, as the harassment scandal is about to break. While screenwriter Randolph doesn't indulge in a full-on whitewash job on Kelly, we are indisputably dealing with a flattering profile in courage. There's only a brief mention of Kelly's appalling "make nice" interview with Trump; no mention of her "Santa Claus is white!" shtick; no indication, falling as it does outside the film's timeline, of her firing from NBC in 2018 after defending blackface on Halloween.
As critic Dana Stevens wrote in Slate: "No one deserves to be harassed at work, and the fact these women banded together to bring down an enormously powerful and malignant man is admirable." But it's hard, as Stevens says, to wholly admire Kelly "as she wrestles with whether and how to tell her truth, while continuing to play a highly public part in a media ecosystem based on lies."
The most conspicuous harassment-in-the-media scandals in the wake of Ailes' downfall, from Matt Lauer to Harvey Weinstein, knew no political boundaries. In story terms "Bombshell," like "Richard Jewell," has clear and monstrous antagonists: Ailes is villain enough for anybody, including ardent Fox viewers, just as the government and the media in "Richard Jewell" offer a clear and present danger.
However freely fictionalized, I like my docudramas with as much moral complication and human shading as filmmakers can provide. Years from now, it'd be wonderful to look back at something more than good actors, with or without wizardly prosthetics, taking our mind off what's not quite right with the stories at hand.
MPAA rating: R (for sexual material and language throughout)
Running time: 1:48