For the large segment of Americans who revile Fox News and the state-media mentality it represents, the prospects of wandering the network’s interiors might sound more than a little unpleasant. However, it only takes a few minutes of “Bombshell” for Charlize Theron to invite us in. Breaking the fourth wall as former anchor-turned-2016-Trump-foe Megyn Kelly, Theron guides viewers into the chaos of the news corporation’s inner lair, with a level of entrancement on par with her character. Theron’s chameleon transformation is absolute: She charges through the labyrinthine hallways and newsroom cubicles without ever leaving sight of the camera, enunciating the final syllable of each word so neatly they nearly tumble from her mouth.
The entirety of “Bombshell” attempts a similar gamble with mixed results. An unseemly blend of satire and empathetic docudrama, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph’s brash and playful recounting of the Fox News sexual harassment scandals that brought down chief executive Roger Ailes (a vampiric John Lithgow in a fat suit) endeavors to make its infuriating topic into a fun ride, often succeeding against unlikely odds by anchoring the wacky tone in an empowering foundation.
Careening from Kelly’s Trump feud to the sexual assault charges filed by ousted “Fox and Friends” anchor Gretchen Carlson (a stern Nicole Kidman) and the traumatic experiences of a fictionalized new hire (Margot Robbie), “Bombshell” combines media sensationalism, high-pitch caricatures, and sensitive insights into the plight of women exploited by powerful men. It’s certainly an ambitious wager, and one that turns the lunacy and contradictions of the past several years into a wild, colorful mixed bag: Think Mad Magazine meets #MeToo.
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Although the narrative of “Bombshell” belongs to its women, Roach’s resume yields a natural fit with the material. After all, the past decade has found the filmmaker shedding his comedic background (from “Austin Powers” to “Meet the Fockers”) for timely fictionalizations of political turning points, with the made-for-TV 2000-set “Recount” followed up by 2012 Sarah Palin saga “Game Change,” and the Black List period piece “Trumbo.” With “Bombshell,” Roach synthesizes those two career modes, while benefiting from “The Big Short” screenwriter Randolph’s ability to probe dark conspiratorial forces with a playful humanistic touch.
Despite the ultimate focus on Ailes’ downfall, “Bombshell” begins as Kelly’s show alone, on the eve of her fateful 2015 gig moderating the Republican debates. Theron embodies Kelly with a fierce individuality that wrestles free of Fox biases: “Trump has a problem with a women,” she says. “I want to ask him about it.” And so she does, as millions of Americans witness a showdown that continues to play out in the coming days, with Trump’s notorious assertion (“there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”) driving the perception of a Trump antagonist in the lion’s den. Kelly’s practical mentality sits at the center of the movie with a riveting air of contradiction: She’s at once eager to tow the company line even as she drags it in her own directions. “I’m not a feminist,” she says. “I’m a lawyer!”
But the media just sees her as another star, and when her own fame eclipses her subject, it begins to take a toll on her personal life, culminating in a conciliatory interview with Trump at his gold-plated tower. The filmmakers wisely relegate Trump to media clips, cutting Theron into the story when the footage calls for it, and letting her argue through the circumstances in backrooms. While her frustrated husband (Mark Duplass in a fleeting but measured turn) tells her she let the presidential candidate off easy, Kelly’s at a complete loss — trapped between allegiances that force her longstanding Fox relationship to unravel.
All of this, however, serves as a preamble for the broader forces in play. By the time “Bombshell” begins, Kidman’s Carlson has already been axed from the network and is plotting to take on Lithgow’s Ailes, who roams the hallways with a calm regal air when he isn’t inviting eager female staffers into his office for devious reasons.
That’s where Robbie’s Kayla comes into play. A wide-eyed young Fox super fan indoctrinated to its conservative agenda since youth, the character is reportedly a fictional hybrid of many staffers who became Ailes’ victims over the years. The embellishments show their seams in some of her zanier moments, including an attempt to justify the network’s inane “fair and balanced” slogan, but her first grotesque encounter with Ailes’ lecherous ways marks a high point in the movie’s ability to approach its chief subject with an unflinching gaze: Summoning the woman to his office, the parodic buffoon forces her to pull up her skirt as the minutes stretch past, and the hokey storytelling gives way to a much darker reality. It’s an infuriating encapsulation of workplace abuse that gives greater weight to the more gratuitous instances implied later on.
“Bombshell” has enough to juggle with its three women and the terrible man who unites them in a company-wide lawsuit, but it’s also overloaded with supporting roles, some more effective than others. Kate McKinnon stands out as a closeted left-wing lesbian who takes Kayla under her wing; the underutilized character’s amusing monologue about how she wound up trapped in a job that goes against every fiber of her being deserves a movie of its own. Elsewhere, though, bit parts for real-life figures shunted to cameos register as little more than stunt casting: Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani! Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch! Huddling with these men at varying points, Lithgow often seems ready to let go with “Live from New York…”
Along similar lines, Roach and Randolph work overtime to keep the material engaging, falling just short of last year’s “Vice” in their reliance on fourth-wall-breaking devices that often veer into overstatement. (When one character references dedicated Fox viewers who keep the network on so much the logo has been burnt onto their TV sets, there it suddenly is in the corner of the frame, just in case we didn’t get the picture.) Fortunately, these big swings fall to the wayside as the movie doubles down on the process that leads so many women came forward, including Kelly herself. It’s gratifying to see the bad man get his due, even if the movie stops short of elaborating on what comes next, from Ailes’ death months later to Kelly’s own career undoing during a short-lived NBC stint. “Bombshell” doesn’t endeavor to provide the definitive Megyn Kelly story, opting instead to hover in the moment that made her into a rock star, and assumes audiences can fill in the blanks.
Yet the movie rejuvenates a familiar plot with galvanizing energy, sizzling with the potential to become the first major movie response to sexual assault since #MeToo became a household term. It doesn’t quite have that distinction, given that it follows the Harvey Weinstein thriller “The Assistant” (which premiered at festivals head of “Bombshell,” despite a 2020 release). But the two movies work in harmony: “The Assistant” explores the queasy feeling of powerlessness facing those working within close proximity to a sexual predator; “Bombshell” celebrates the kind of determination necessary to actually take a stand.
As the movie documents the outrageous fallout of the Ailes accusations that drove the network against itself, it mines genuine insight into what it takes for women to clap back at their abusers — and why others struggle to do so. “Bombshell” is a lurid, cartoonish romp, marred by rough and sometimes overbearing flourishes, but not without a tragicomic soul. That alone makes it a genuine movie of the moment.
Lionsgate releases “Bombshell” nationwide on December 13, 2019.