Director: Jay Roach
Screenplay: Charles Randolph
Stars: Charlize Theron (Megyn Kelly), Nicole Kidman (Gretchen Carlson), Margot Robbie (Kayla Pospisil), John Lithgow (Roger Ailes), Allison Janney (Susan Estrich), Malcolm McDowell (Rupert Murdoch), Kate McKinnon (Jess Carr), Connie Britton (Beth Ailes), Liv Hewson (Lily Balin), Brigette Lundy-Paine (Julia Clarke), Rob Delaney (Gil Norman), Mark Duplass (Doug Brunt), Stephen Root (Neil Mullen), Robin Weigert (Nancy Smith), Amy Landecker (Dianne Brandi), Mark Moses (Bill Shine)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S.

In Bombshell, Jay Roach’s dramatization of the sexual harassment scandal that rocked Fox News and led to the forced resignation of CEO Roger Ailes, the title does not-so-subtle double duty: It refers simultaneously to the army of “blonde bots” who deliver news and commentary on Fox News and the explosion that occurred when a series of accusations against the Ailes broke open the network’s barely hidden culture of sexism and sexual harassment. The connection between the two—one out in the open, loud and proud, as it were, and one taking place behind closed doors—should not be lost. The title is also inadvertently ironic since, despite the enormity of Ailes’s (and Fox personality Bill O’Reilly’s) transgressions and the fact that the scandal ended the career of one of the most influential political operatives and media moguls in modern history, Fox is just as powerful as ever, with little in the way of residual damage to their brand or their loyal viewers.

The film divides its time fairly evenly among three women at Fox News, each of whom represents a different response to sexual harassment. Nicole Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, the oldest of the three women and the one with the longest tenure at Fox who set off the ticking bomb by suing Ailes after she was fired, ostensibly for rejecting his sexual advances. Kidman plays Carlson as smart and tactical, working with her lawyers to ensure that her suit is heard by suing Ailes (John Lithgow) personally, rather than Fox News (which her contract disallows). She is essentially the voice that refuses to back down, and she steps forward with the confidence that her willingness to take on the 600-pound gorilla will embolden other women to step forward and tell their stories.

On the other end of the power spectrum is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a young, energetic, and ambitious news researcher who desire nothing more to work her way in front of the camera (she is actually a composite character meant to stand in for dozens of young women at Fox who fell victim to Ailes’s advances). Having no celebrity status or even much in the way of experience, she is particularly vulnerable, and when Ailes calls her up to his office for an “audition,” it comes as no surprise that it involves her lifting her skirt as high as possible. Kayla is clearly shaken by the experience, and when she turns to her friend Jess (Kate McKinnon), a closeted lesbian and Hillary supporter who works at Fox because it is the only job she could get, she finds a wall of silence. No one wants to rock the boat, especially those who know they can easily be thrown overboard.

That description does not fit Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who at the time was arguably Fox News’ biggest star, hosting her own prime-time news show and finding undue notoriety by daring to take on Donald Trump during the Republican primaries. Kelly had been harassed years earlier by Ailes, and when Carlson files suit, she is torn between keeping quiet in order to maintain her position of power within the network or to add her voice, thus giving credence to Carlson’s accusations and providing some sense of solidarity among the women whom Ailes victimized.

Bombshell was written by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar three years ago for co-writing Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2016), a film that Roach is clearly trying to emulate here (like McKay, Roach began primarily as a director of broad comedies, including the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, but has recently graduated to more serious concerns like 2015’s Trumbo about the blacklisted screenwriter and 2016’s made-for-television movie All the Way about LBJ’s battle to pass the Civil Rights Act). The Big Short was fast and thoughtful and funny and sobering all at the same time, and it managed to make the horrors of the 2008 housing crash both intelligible and even more infuriating. That rage-against-the-machine sense of social justice is woven all throughout Bombshell, and it is at its best when it focuses on the details of how men like Ailes are able to perpetuate their crimes against women because of their power and duplicity.

However, the first quarter of the film is too much of a broadside against Fox News itself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the network earns much of the derision directed at it, but all too often it feels like Roach and Randolph are simply swatting at low-hanging fruit. Fox News adherents will cry foul about how the network is unfairly represented, and that unfortunately distracts from the more pressing issue of how the events that unfolding behind its closed doors are hardly unique to the Empire That Ailes Built. Rather, Bombshell is better seen as an indictment of a specific set of crimes that speak to a much larger cultural problem. “It’s a visual medium!” Ailes bellows at one point in defense of his requiring Fox’s female anchors and pundits to wear short skirts, but such issues are hardly limited to his network. That is why, when Bombshell gets beyond Fox-bashing and into the gritty realities of what women have to go through to be heard and believed over the imposing, powerful men who exploit them it becomes a much better, more compelling, and more meaningful film.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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