Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon. Directed by Jay Roach.
When significant events happen in the world, it’s often only a matter of time before Hollywood starts making movies about them. Sometimes, this happens a little too soon for all the facts to come out, but nonetheless, 9/11 was almost immediately put into the movie-making cycle, and the same for the Boston Marathon bombing. So, it seems inevitable that Hollywood would deliver a film about a moment that would eventually become the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
For context, Bombshell charts the lead up to Gretchen Carlson suing FOX news CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment and the series of revelations that lead to his resignation (firing).
Director Jay Roach appears to be doing an Adam McKay in making the pivot from broad comedy films to Oscar movies, though it’s not as sharp as it first appears. Yes, Roach was once the man who made all three Austin Powers movies and both Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, but inbetween terrible the awful Dinner for Schmucks and the unfunny The Campaign, Roach made two TV Movies that showed his political interest – 2000 Florida recount drama Recount and Sarah Palin Biopic Game Change. More recently, he directed Bryan Cranston twice to awards acclaim in Trumbo about the famous screenwriter and All the Way, a TV movie about Lyndon B. Johnson.
Roach, and his screenwriter Charles Randolph (co-screenwriter of The Big Short) have both accepted that they are men telling the story of women and are therefore at a disadvantage in telling the story, though with a production team that includes Charlize Theron, there are female voices that are able to break through.
The film uses fourth-wall breaking as a device, beginning with Theron’s Megyn Kelly, the controversial host of FOX news, who begins the film by detailing how the hierarchy of FOX works. It’s all very Vice, which makes sense given that McKay teamed up with Randolph for The Big Short, and all three have a kind of “can you believe this sh*t” mentality. Kelly famously ran afoul of Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries, wherein Trump unleashed a barrage of tweets calling her a “bimbo”, but was somewhat muzzled by the fact that Ailes had political affiliation with Trump.
The film entire film focusses on three women, Kelly as the main figure, with Nicole Kidman’s brittle Gretchen Carlson the Lady Macbeth figure knowing that Ailes is gunning for her. The film is muddled though on why Carlson has a beef with Ailes. Though she says it’s sexual harrassment, the film goes to great lengths to imply it’s because she’s unhappy with her lot at FOX, though that itself may be because of her lack of complicity in Ailes advances.
The third leg is Margot Robbie as amalgamation character Kayla Pospisil, and with her we have the first major issue with the film. The idea of hanging a third of the film’s emotion weight on a fictional character undoes much of the good of the film; given that the film is really about what Carlson set in motion, and the conflict that Kelly found herself in, this wide-eyed nobody also finding the nasty underbelly of FOX is not at all needed, and it also undoes any of the true story qualities of the film because large chunks are the fantasy of a man at a computer.
That said, John Lithgow had the unfortunate task of following Russell Crowe’s Golden Globe-winning turn as Ailes in the miniseries The Loudest Voice in a Trust / All the Money in the World style same-story told on TV and in movies. Though Crowe looked somewhat more likes Ailes, Lithgow imbues him with a sense of pathos. He’s intriguing, quite charming, but also repulsive. At one point Ailes describes himself as “looking like Jabba the Hut” and numerous references are made to how he views himself, as if he too is a victim of people being obsessed with looks.
The make-up by Academy Award winner Hiro Kazu is phenomenal. Not just the layers of fat suit he’s caked Lithgow in — Kazu won an Oscar for fattening Gary Oldman into Churchill for Darkest Hour — but also for turning Theron into stern-faced Kelly. It’s not that you forget it’s Theron, but you forget after a while that that isn’t what Theron looks like. She does genuinely look like Kelly, although the film mixes the actors with archive footage and photos, which does partly undo both the performances and the make-up.
Another issue with the film is that for the first film to tackle the MeToo movement, and the culture of sexual harassment in big media, picking Ailes and the FOX lot was probably not a great idea. After all, Kelly is not a sympathetic person, she’s right-wing, rude, and even after a dust-up with Trump lets him off lightly.
Kelly famously claimed that Jesus’ race was “up for debate” and that Santa HAS to be white. In making a film about the abuse of women, picking a woman that it’s hard to like would probably have worked further down the line but ultimately you still end up thinking negatively of her, and her refusal to accept the title of feminist becomes such a running joke you actually believe her.
Much like Vice, the film is playing to the congregation and not the non-believers. A liberal Hollywood movie and about liberal values starring liberals is unlikely to win over the MAGA crowd who hang on the words of provocateurs like Kelly or Bill O’Reilly (also name-checked in the film) or even our own Piers Morgan, who throw words like ‘Snowflakes’ around to deride the plight of the more compassionate.
The film’s cast list also plays to the liberal elite feeling of the film after all even the smallest role is a cameo for a proper actor outside of the main four the cast includes (deep breath): Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Alice Eve, Ashley Greene, Mark Evan Jackson, Brian d’Arcy James, Richard Kind, Jennifer Morrison, Tony Plana, Stephen Root, Holland Taylor, Robin Weigert and Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch — which makes sense because McDowell built his own career on portraying the worst of the worst.
The positive side is that the massive cast all do great, and while the praise appears to be heaped on Theron and Robbie, both Kidman and Lithgow also deserve some of the praise, while the scene in which we see what happens in Ailes casting sessions is painfully uncomfortable.
But if you’re in the mood for a film that is both informative and entertaining, filled with great performances and a message that, while muddled, is still compelling and effective, then there’s much to like about Bombshell, but it’s also the sort of film that is tailor-made to cause arguments, so choose your viewing partner carefully.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.