“It’s a visual medium,” John Lithgow’s Roger Ailes oozily declares in Bombshell. It’s a line often used by the Fox News network overlord as lecherous justification for getting female employees to show him their physical gifts. It’s ostensibly all part of an apparent interview process for on-air gigs with the conservative TV news network and these employees – almost always being perky and attractive blondes who have the legs to work a short hemline – face a choice summarized as succinctly as it is skeevy in another Ailes motto used in this docudrama: “To play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.”
As director Jay Roach (who also gave us the spectacular Sarah Palin political humdinger Game Changer) and screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) quickly assert, this was simply the reality at Fox News for many years. A reality that bent to the whims of Ailes, the all-powerful demigod who ruled all in his domain from his panopticon-like office colloquially known as “The Second Floor”.
A kingmaker of note, Ailes had deep ties to US politics. Most notably, in 2015 when Bombshell kicks off, a friendship with then-Presidential hopeful Donald Trump who had just been asked a very uncomfortable question about his troubled historic treatment of women by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) during the US Presidential debate. Taking to social media with the clumsy childlike gusto we’ve unfortunately since come to know so well, Trump attacks Kelly personally for her question, going to so far as to blame her legit journalism on menstruation. With no public support from her mentor Ailes, Kelly’s allegiance is torn.
But as she reluctantly gets dragged into a messy scrap with Trump and his loyalists, the Fox newsroom faces a second, even bigger crisis. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), a former-Miss-America-turned-veteran-Fox-News-anchor is fired by Ailes for nebulous reasons. Her makeup-free broadcast to encourage young girls to buck societal pressures may have something to do with it (“Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause,” Ailes yells at her around a mouthful of doughnut). Or it could be Carlson’s years of rebuffing Ailes’ unsolicited sexual advances, for which she is now publicly suing the TV tyrant. As the shock and awe that ripples through the industry shows, this is just unheard of. Nobody crosses swords with Ailes. At least not anybody who wants to walk away to tell the tale.
Meanwhile, rookie producer Kayla Pospipil (Margot Robbie) is living her dream. A strictly conservative evangelical, she is exactly the right-leaning network’s target demographic. Raised on the gospel of Fox, she has never wanted to do anything else with her life except work for the TV network. But when her good looks, blonde hair and short skirts catch the attention of The Second Floor, her dreams promptly transform to nightmares.
And thus the scene is set for a titanic brawl that will change the landscape of American television. It’s the type of cataclysmic struggle whose seismic reverberations we’re still feeling today. And yet, walking out of the cinema, it took barely a moment for Bombshell’s effects to fade.
That’s not to say that Bombshell is a bad movie. Far from it, in fact, as it boasts stupendous performances from its cast, led by a Theron made eerily unrecognizable thanks to a flawless body-snatcher-like deep-dive performance and Oscar-winning makeup artist Kazu Hiro’s wizardry (for which he has earned another Oscar nomination). She captures the real Kelly’s arctic cool demeanour and diction with unnerving perfection – it’s a stunning showing.
So too does Lithgow, wearing a fat suit and more excellent makeup, excel as the volatile Ailes. He’s blubbery and blustery to perfection. Meanwhile, Robbie has to do the hardest emotional work of the film – her first meeting with Ailes’ in his office is a gut-wrenching experience as horrific as anything I’ve seen in cinemas last year – and she does not disappoint. Her performance is a veritable pyrotechnic show of emotional range. It’s also a blend of fact and fiction as Robbie’s Kayla didn’t really exist but is a composite character made up of the reports of the many other women who eventually spoke out against Ailes. The film’s fantastic supporting cast – made up of Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, – also has to get a mention. And I mention them before the third headliner, Kidman, because while she does fantastic work, Roach and Randolph don’t give her much to do for long periods of time despite Gretchen Carlson essentially being the person who lit the fuse on Ailes.
And that’s actually a symptom of what holds Bombshell back. As Randolph showed with the masterful The Big Short, he can turn horrific real-world forensics into hellishly entertaining fare, and he does the same here. Employing all kinds of tricks like Theron’s Kelly often breaking the Fourth Wall to explain the hierarchy and intricacies of Fox, Randolph and Roach keep the film lively and bubbly throughout. There’s never a dull moment as they peek behind the curtain of the controversial Fox. But it’s always just a peek.
This is the explosive story of how two women broke away from the organisation for which they were the literal poster-children to dismantle one of the most powerful men in America for his many years of crippling abuse. It’s a film that should leave you flattened with the force of an atomic blast, your sensibilities shredded to nuclear confetti, and it just doesn’t. In an effort to seemingly illuminate but not really incriminate, Roach and Randolph go for surface-level thrills, either ignoring or glossing over huge swathes of events that occurred. Even Kelly, a personality as problematic as they come (she famously declared on live TV that Jesus was white), is handled with aloofness, never really digging deep into what makes her tick as she floats through the story.
When the #MeToo movement first went viral in 2017, we were flooded with testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse, often heartbreaking and ghoulish. With these stories involving some rather heavyweight real-life personalities, and being so rife with human drama and controversy, you would think that Hollywood would be quick to use them as rocket fuel for their great entertainment machine. Nothing sells quite like a scandal after all. And while we have got a few adaptations, A-list features have been few and far between (That it was the widespread sexual assault allegations levelled at none other than Hollywood royalty Harvey Weinstein that got this torrid ball rolling can’t be ignored when considering that omission).
While Ailes’ story has already made it to the screen in the documentary Divide and Conquer as well as the Russell Crowe-led Showtime TV series The Loudest Noise, Bombshell is not just the only big-budget effort at uncovering this event, it’s also the only one actually told from the POV of the women who first suffered under Ailes and then rose up to overthrow him. And they deserve better than just a fun 100-minute long diversion in the cinema.
Last Updated: January 24, 2020