It’s hard to overstate how seismic it was when Roger Ailes was removed as CEO of Fox News in 2016, for serial sexual harassment. Ailes was as powerful as it’s possible to be in the media world, controlling the voice of conservative news in the US. This was a year before Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, but the ousting of Ailes set the path for both. It showed the untouchable men in power were within reach. Bombshell is the story of Ailes’ downfall, or more specifically the women who brought him down.
Bombshell’s story is told through three women: First is Fox presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who filed a lawsuit against Ailes (John Lithgow, slug-like in weighty prosthetics) after he fired her, accusing him of repeated sexual advances. While Carlson’s case is percolating, we see young, eager “Christian influencer” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) enter the Fox News den (Pospisil is a fictionalised character based on several real victims). She begins climbing the ranks and then realises that going any higher means submitting to Ailes. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) was the network’s biggest star, but even that does not protect her from a culture of misogyny and the revolting boss.
These events have been well-covered in the news, so Bombshell doesn’t simply retell them. It’s written by Charles Randolph, co-writer of The Big Short, and he’s used the same style handbook here. Characters talk to the camera; complicated issues are explained in little skits; graphics and text are slapped across the screen. The heightened-reality presentation gives the film licence to play with real events and insert a lot of jokes into a serious story. The Fox News world, it tells us, is crazy in ways both hilarious and terrible.
One of the very smart things Randolph’s script does is to embrace nuance in its characters. Megyn Kelly has done many reprehensible things in her career, including defending blackface and insisting Jesus was a white man. But the film is not about whether you like her. It’s about what happened to her and what she did about it. What happened to her was awful. You can sympathise with what she went through and still dislike her. They’re not mutually exclusive, which the film does not shy from.
Theron plays that nuance impeccably. Her physical transformation into Kelly is so convincing as to be unnerving, but let’s not shortchange her by dwelling on the visual element (but huge applause to make-up artist Kazu Hiro). Theron holds many complex parts of Kelly in a very steady hand. Kelly is selfish, driven, kind to those she likes, brisk with those she doesn’t, attention-seeking, fiercely defensive of her privacy. She’s trying to make it in a company where being a woman is a mark against you. The last thing she wants is to be seen as a victim and she battles with herself to admit she is.
Theron is fantastic, but she’s not the only one. Kidman goes to some very brave places as an ageing anchor being edged out and Robbie is simply brilliant in a really complicated role. Pospisil is so very much a Fox News woman that if you cut her she’d bleed partisan soundbites. This should be her home. Watching her realise her home is filled with lurking monsters is, in Robbie’s hands, heartbreaking. Ailes robs her of everything she knew about herself.
Director Jay Roach has a sure control of a difficult tone. He knows when to push the comedy and when the situation demands seriousness. A pivotal scene in which Kayla goes to Ailes’ office is horrifying. He firmly pushes her through uncomfortable flirting until he’s cajoled her into raising her skirt, while he wheezes lasciviously. Roach lets it play out slowly, horribly. We have to endure a fraction of the stomach-churning awfulness many women suffered in that office. That the film can move between a scene like that and one with laugh-out-loud jokes, without any lurch, is deeply impressive.
Bombshell is equally entertaining and depressing. It’s a very well constructed film about an infuriating situation. Do not expect the fury to dissipate at the end when everything is out in the open. Punishments do not always fit the crime, or crimes. No matter how big the bombshell, some will always be protected from the blast.
- Director: Jay Roach
- Starring: Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman
- Release date: 17 January 2020