2019, R, 108 min. Directed by Jay Roach. Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alanna Ubach, Mark Moses.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 20, 2019
The odious working conditions for female on-air talent at Fox News and the first high-profile sparks of resistance – which led to the ouster of Fox chief and network creator Roger Ailes and some of the first stirrings of the #MeToo movement – is the subject of the double-entendre’d Bombshell. The film offers a sense of the iron-fisted will of Ailes, who insisted on the network’s standardized appearance for all female anchors to be attractive blondes clothed in sheath dresses and bared legs. The network czar had two bits of advice for wannabe female stars: “To get ahead, you have to give a little head,” and, “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.”
From the moment Bombshell opens with a voiceover by Megyn Kelly, it’s clear that Charlize Theron has nailed the distinctive smoky voice of the character she’s playing. Once the character appears onscreen, the likeness becomes even more undeniable: Theron achieves a note-perfect replication of Kelly’s visual appearance as well. However, even though the character’s physical attributes are impeccable, Kelly’s toxic ideologies (i.e., Santa Claus is a white man) are underplayed. That’s not to say that her personal beliefs are scrubbed from the film, just that they are downplayed. It’s hard to create a heroic narrative arc for an inherently dislikable character.
Kelly is one of three women at the heart of Bombshell’s story. Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) is really the first anchor to lower the boom on Ailes (played with loathsome sexism and ample padding by John Lithgow) after getting fired for being too difficult. It is her individual lawsuit against Ailes instead of the giant Fox Corporation that exposed Ailes’ sexist conduct and led to his downfall. Margot Robbie plays a naive yet ambitious fictional character, an “evangelical millennial,” who we observe being sexually humiliated by Ailes. Kate McKinnon plays a secondary role as a lesbian producer stuck toiling for her Fox overlords.
Written by Charles Randolph (co-writer of The Big Short screenplay with Adam McKay) and directed by Jay Roach (TV’s topical movies Recount and Game Change and cinema’s escapist Austin Powers films and Meet the Fockers), Bombshell is much like the polished surface appearance required of Fox’s on-air women. There is little background or in-depth examination of the women the film portrays. (Scratch too deeply and viewers might not like what they see.) The film only obliquely foreshadows the coming deluge in the campaign for women’s workplace rights that occurred over at CBS, NBC, and the Weinstein Company in short order. Neither does the film examine the ouster of Fox News co-President Bill Shine (Moses), who plays a prominent role in this narrative. Bombshell’s ultimate punch lands more like a spectacular bottle rocket than a scorching Molotov cocktail.