PLOT: When host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from Fox News, she comes forth with allegations of sexual harassment against boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), which blow the lid off his long-rumored pattern of abuse among the network’s female on-air talent, including their most popular host – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron).
REVIEW: The Fox News/ Roger Ailes case has become one of the most controversial #MeToo stories. Gretchen Carlson’s case blew the lid off of a pattern of abuse that went back decades and had numerous victims, and it’s a story which proved to be disturbingly common among the higher echelons of power. As the film itself notes, Ailes was the first to be brought down, but he wasn’t the last and now, this seminal case has become fodder for not only a Showtime limited series (“The Loudest Voice”) but also BOMBSHELL, a hoped-for awards contender from Jay Roach (GAME CHANGE) and writer Charles Randolph.
Randolph has a lot of experience boiling down complicated narratives into palatable, often witty and clever 100-minute movies, with THE BIG SHORT the model for what he does here with Roach. On the one hand, it’s the story of Ailes and his disgusting treatment of these women but on the other its a fascinating glimpse into the world of Fox News, with the unique catch being that our heroes, specifically Kelly, are conservative often controversial figures themselves.
Much of the first half of BOMBSHELL is about Kelly’s coverage of the Trump campaign and how she found herself at the center of a media firestorm after asking some tough questions during the Republican debate. Ailes is depicted, at this point, as a surprisingly stalwart ally. So on the one hand, we see Ailes the newsman through his first interactions with Kelly, and it’s only when Margot Robbie’s fictional composite character Kayla comes into the plot that we see his monstrous side.
Robbie, in many ways, is our entree into the world, with her a naive conservative Christian with strong ambitions and a streak of self-denial, as when she tells a gay producer (Kate McKinnon) she has a fling with that she’s not gay herself despite all evidence to the contrary. We see her get lured by Ailes and his seemingly kind but ultimately reprehensible secretary (Holland Taylor) into thinking he’s a sweet old guy, only to immediately realize what the price of her career at Fox News is going to be once he asks her to raise her skirt during an agonizing meeting.
The casting is spot on but also strange in some respects. While much has been written about how the makeup makes Theron look uncannily like Kelly, it’s also distracting and ultimately, in this critic’s opinion, unnecessary. We know what Theron looks like and we know what Kelly looks like. Was the make-up necessary? Ditto the way Theron imitates her clipped speech. In some respects, it feels like she’s only playing the version of Kelly we see on TV, and watching her act the same way with her family and friends feels a touch off, although it can’t be denied Theron disappears into the role. One could see why she wanted to play the part as Kelly is a deeply conflicted character, juggling her ambitions with the nagging, almost inconvenient pangs of conscience she feels during her ascendance to the top ranks of the organization. At the same time though, it can’t be denied that in some respects we never really get a handle on who she is as a person when the cameras are off.
Kidman’s also been given a make-over to resemble Carlson, and while it’s not as extreme as Theron’s, it’s similarly a bit of a distraction, with her fake chin never looking quite right. Her role is relatively small here, with it being more Kelly and Kayla’s story than Carlson’s (which is recounted in a more in-depth way in “The Loudest Voice”). Robbie, on the other hand, doesn’t have the makeup to deal with and it becomes easier to accept her because we’re not busy comparing her to anyone or marveling at the physical transformation. As a result, her performance winds up being the most affecting. John Lithgow’s also been given a makeover to play Ailes but he looks repulsive, almost like a Jabba the Hutt-esque figure rather than a real person. Again, all of the performances are excellent, but I wonder if they were too caught up with showing off the amazing make-up.
Still, the over-use of makeup and prosthetics and the occasionally frustrating depiction of Kelly is the only major problem I had with the film, as it moves at a lightning-fast pace and comes off rather even-handed in its politics. There’s no doubt Kelly and Carlson’s opinions are different than most of the people involved in the film, but they’re still accorded the respect they deserve, especially considering how they put their careers on the line to take down someone who’s essentially a monster. Even the Murdoch’s are portrayed in a fairly sympathetic way, with James and Lachlan (played by real-life siblings Ben and Josh Lawson) fed up with Ailes long before their father (an uncanny and subtle Malcolm McDowell) decides to take action. Roach and Randolph also try to have a little fun with the crazed atmosphere, with Kate McKinnon doing excellent, serious work as Robbie’s friend in the office, albeit one who’s just as content to turn a blind eye to Ailes as anyone else.
In the end, BOMBSHELL is an entertaining account of the Ailes take-down and a pretty intriguing look at the workings of Fox News that should play well to audiences regardless of where their politics happen to fall. Roach and Randolph both know how to boil down complicated material to its essentials and while it may not be quite the surefire awards contender some pegged it as it’s well worth seeing.