Producers: AJ Dix, Beth Kono, Charles Randolph, Jay Roach, Margaret Riley and Michelle Graham Director: Jay Roach Screenplay: Charles Randolph Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Holland Taylor, Stephen Root, Alice Eve, Alanna Ubach, Spencer Garrett, Brooke Smith, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, P.J. Byrne and Marc Evan Jackson Distributor: Lionsgate
The disclosure of the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News that led to the dismissal of founder and long-time boss Roger Ailes in 2016 is given slick, entertaining but somewhat scattershot treatment in Jay Roach’s movie, which aims for the same sort of snarky, fast-paced energy that Adam McKay brought to “The Big Short” and “Vice” (in fact, scripter Charles Randolph was also the co-writer of “Short”) but also wants to be a stinging commentary on toxic masculinity in a workplace that was also a seedbed of toxic politics. “Bombshell” sizzles and simmers but rarely explodes in the way the title suggests it will.
And when it does, it’s mostly because of the volcanic presence as Ailes of John Lithgow, encased in so much makeup that he’s practically unrecognizable (though the voice remains unmistakable). The actor makes the Fox chief such a sleazy manipulator, both of people and of the news, and so contemptible a predator that it’s a joy to watch his ignominious fall at the hands of the smoothly calculating Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell, in a choice cameo).
The focus of the film is, however, on the women who bring him down, and here the movie isn’t quite as richly rewarding. It’s not that Nicole Kidman, as Gretchen Carlson, who was the first to level accusations at Ailes, and Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, who eventually (and decisively) supported the charge, are inadequate. It’s that Carlson and Kelly—as well as Margot Robbie as a composite character called Kayla Pospisil, who represents the current victims of Ailes’s unwelcome attentions—suffer not just because of his lust and willingness to use his power to satisfy it, but because of their own ambition to succeed in a cutthroat business. That complexity, while certainly not ignored, is never really inspected in a serious way, and that failure ultimately undercuts their performances.
Nonetheless, if one is willing to accept a sensationalist surface without much depth beneath it, “Bombshell” provides an enjoyable if somewhat shallow ride. It begins with the 2016 Republican presidential debate in which Kelly is poised to ask Donald Trump a question about his venomous remarks about women. Ailes is ostensibly supportive, but one has to wonder when Kelly falls ill before going on air.
Carlson, meanwhile, who had previously been effectively demoted at the network, and the afternoon program she headlines is then terminated with the end of her contract in June. The following month she files suit against Ailes for sexual harassment, alleging she was fired for rejecting his advances. And Pospisil, a true believer for whom Fox is essentially an extension of her family’s evangelical fervor, is recruited by Ailes’s executive assistant and facilitator Faye (Holland Taylor) as a potential new conquest.
What follows concentrates primarily on Kelly, whose attempts to navigate the tightrope between her knowledge of Ailes’s behavior and her professional security grow increasingly difficult, and Pospisil, who becomes more and more dependent on Ailes’s patronage even as Jess (Kate McKinnon), the lesbian colleague who’s befriended her, warns her about the dangerous path she’s chosen. By contrast Carlson’s story falls somewhat into the background as she confers with her lawyers about the need for other women to come forward and the problem posed by binding arbitration agreements—and tries to deal with the reality of the doldrums into which her career has fallen.
All this is set against the backdrop of the Fox News studios, where the staff splits into factions, some coming unstintingly to Ailes’s defense and others gingerly moving to the other side. Watching folks like Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff), Sean Hannity (Spencer Garrett), Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana), Neil Cavuto (P.J. Byrne)Bret Baier (Michael Buie), Chris Wallace (Marc Evan Jackson), Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsay), Bill Shine (Mark Moses) and Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) mill about the newsroom talking about their boss’s problems (Pirro being his shrillest defender), and Ailes advisors Susan Estrich (Allison Janney) and Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) becoming embroiled in his increasingly hopeless rebuttals is undeniably fun, even if the portrayals aren’t particularly sharp. (The periodic use of real footage, from the debates but also in the form of testimony from some of Ailes’s actual victims, accentuates the flaws in the “recreations.”)
Nonetheless Theron, Kidman and Robbie all do excellent work, and McKinnon is her usual energetic self, even if Jess’ friendship with Kayla—which goes so far as to include a scene of them sharing a bed, presumably platonically—never rings true. And there are nice cameos by Holland and Stephen Root as one of Carlson’s lawyers. Technical credits are strong across the board, with the cinematography (Barry Ackroyd), production design (Mark Ricker), and editing (Jon Poll) all topnotch. And overshadowing it all is Lithgow’s commanding Ailes, a grotesque colossus whose fall is depicted as well overdue (a point of view that some true believers will undoubtedly still dispute, despite all the evidence).
The Ailes story has been covered in several fine documentaries and the Showtime series “The Loudest Voice” with Russell Crowe. What distinguishes “Bombshell” is its perspective, that of the victims of his harassment. The fact that it gives them voice alone makes it worth seeing, despite its flaws.