Based on a Real Scandal
It has been a year for high profile accounts of the life, career, and misdemeanors of late Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, hasn’t it? First, there was the Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice, available on Stan hereabouts, which saw Russell Crowe undergo a De Niro-esque physical transformation to play the predatory purveyor of right-wing news, who was ousted from his job in 2016 after an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations. Now John Lithgow, Daddy’s Home 2 (2017), burrows under layers of makeup and prosthetics to take on the role in Bombshell.
Ailes, who, as played by Lithgow, looks sort of like one of the Vogons in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is not the focus, though, although his lecherous presence is felt throughout the film. Rather, screenwriter Charles Randolph, The Big Short (2015), and director Jay Roach, (of all things) Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), give us a triumvirate of protagonists: senior news anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who sues Ailes for sexual harassment after she is let go by Fox; Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who reveals that Ailes propositioned her early in her career; and news ingenue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character standing in for any number of the women assaulted by Ailes (more than 20 allegations were made).
Like Randolph’s earlier (and better) The Big Short, Bombshell adopts a snappy, glib tone to investigate dark, albeit not as complex, material. Indeed, Bombshell’s biggest problem is that it shies away from murkiness and compromise. While it quite rightly paints Ailes as an opportunistic predator, it largely refuses to interrogate the culture and political slant of Fox News as an employer and a news organ, perhaps assuming that contemporary audiences will take the network’s strident right-wing position and rampant sensationalism as read.
But more than that, the film refuses to interrogate to any great degree Carlson and Kelly’s participation in that culture and that political agenda, one that fostered and protected Ailes’ predilections. There’s an interesting, and perhaps vital, area of inquiry that goes unexplored: that ambitious, conservative women, self-described non-feminists, might find themselves victimized by the patriarchal culture they support and endorse. That’s messy, treacherous territory that, handled awkwardly, could easily cross over into victim-blaming — the old ‘I never thought leopards would eat my face!’ rubric. Still, it seems germane to the subject matter: that people will ignore or downplay behaviors or systems harmful to other people because they can avoid or benefit from them is a common human behavior, not just among the good right-wing rabble-rousers of Fox.
The film does, however, go there at least a little bit with Pospisil, a Fox faithful who rhapsodizes about her entire family being glued to the channel and always wanting to work not just in broadcasting, but specifically for Murdoch’s network. She also happens to be bisexual and sleeps with fellow Fox employee Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon). It’s Carr, a secondary character to a fictionalized gestalt that uneasily ponders her own position at Fox: unable to get a job elsewhere in the industry, she keeps her sexuality on the down-low. That this thoughtfulness comes from a character so far down the focus totem pole is disappointing, but at least the point is raised.
Nevertheless, the script’s reticence aside, strong performances abound; Nicole Kidman’s, Moulin Rouge! (2001), icy control schtick plays well, and the chameleonic Charlize Theron, Long Shot (2019), is almost unrecognizable under subtle prosthetics as Kelly. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya (2017), gets the film’s two best scenes and absolutely earns them: a queasy private interview with Lithgow’s Ailes wherein he gradually applies pressure to see just how far he can make her go, and a teary phone call with McKinnon’s Carr where she laments what she has done to ‘prove her loyalty’ (Ailes’ phrase, not mine) to the CEO. The supporting ensemble is crammed with talent: Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Tricia Helfer, Liv Hewson, D’Arcy Carden, Richard Kind (as Rudy Giuliani!) and more. The more notorious Fox talking heads get cameos: Kevin Dorff as Bill O’Reilly, Spencer Garrett as Sean Hannity, while the great Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange (1971), shows up as Rupert Murdoch, one has to wonder what Australian brothers Ben and Josh Lawson, playing Lachlan and James Murdoch, made of his stab at our accent.
But there remains a weird timidity to Bombshell that undercuts the good work being done by the cast; the film’s refusal to really dig into the political, personal, and philosophical implications of the events being portrayed is not a fatal flaw, but it’s a major one. It’s telling that the character with the most inner life — Robbie’s — is an invented one; not being directly based on any one individual, the filmmakers can pontificate on her actual emotions, reactions, thoughts, and doubts, and the film is elevated whenever we’re spending time with her. By contrast, Theron’s Kelly and Kidman’s Carlson largely remain creatures of surface and affect, although both actors do their best to let a little interiority shine through the façade. Perhaps this is a result of telling a story about still-living people, or perhaps it’s a result of Kelly and Carlson’s public personas being so well-established that taking a stab at what lies beneath is a hard task, but the result on screen is distancing.
Away from the main action, some of the film’s more interesting elements play out. Trump’s feud with Kelly and the way she is urged by Ailes to make peace with the potential presidential contender is dramatized, and the 2016 Republican Primary provides a counterpoint to the main story thrust, asking us to draw parallels with Ailes’ misdeeds and the allegations against the now-current President. Elsewhere, there are little notes that highlight the strident tribalism that is the Fox brand: a functionary handing out t-shirts in support of Ailes and demanding co-workers put them on is a wonderfully surreal, no doubt accurate, moment.
However, while thematic and narrative potential inherent in Bombshell is huge, neither is realized to any great degree. For all that it champions women’s courage in the face of harassment, its failure to really grapple with the systemic and ideological factors in play mean that what should have been a bombshell instead feels like a flash in the pan.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson