Bombshell (Canada/United States, 2019)

December 24, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bombshell Poster

As a dramatic re-creation of the events leading up to the July 2016 ouster of Fox News honcho Roger Ailes, Bombshell is effective cinema. However, for those familiar with the situation (either from reading about it or following it contemporaneously), new revelations will be few and far between. Bombshell illustrates how, during an era of greater media scrutiny, even “untouchable” men in power can be brought down in the right circumstances. Ailes’ fall helped seed the ground in which the #metoo movement would eventually germinate.

Bombshell features a loaded cast: actress/producer Charlize Theron as Fox News’ ascendant star, Megyn Kelly; Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, the deposed host whose allegations lit the blue touch paper; Margot Robbie as the fictional Kayla Pospisil (an amalgamation of various Ailes victims); John Lithgow as the troglodyte-ish Ailes; Allison Janney as Ailes’ lawyer, Susan Estrich; and Malcom McDowell as Rupert Murdoch. Director Jay Roach handles the actors and screenplay adeptly, eliciting strong performances from several of his high-profile stars while maintaining a crisp pace. He is somewhat hamstrung, however, by the straightforward chronology of the screenplay which favors a traditional approach over something more experimental, spontaneous, or inventive. (I’m thinking of The Big Short or The Laundromat.) The closest the movie gets to this is a scene when Kate McKinnon’s Jess Carr gives Kayla a whirlwind tour of Fox News, including various “dos” and “don’ts.”

Acting is the reason to see Bombshell and it starts with Charlize Theron. Although her transformation in this film isn’t as all-consuming as the one she completed in 2003’s Monster (for which she won an Oscar), all vestiges of her actress persona are submerged into her portrayal of Megyn Kelly. She has the appearance, the body language, and the voice. More importantly, she becomes the character rather than providing an imitation. For Theron, this is an especially difficult task given the prominence of Kelly in recent television. It’s not as if she’s recreating someone who has been dead for a half-century.

Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow are equally strong, albeit in supporting roles. Lithgow’s Ailes is a creepy predator whose charms may have faded but whose paranoia and love of power have not. Kidman isn’t given much to work with by the screenplay, which is thin when it comes to fleshing out Carlson’s personality, but she captures the essence of her alter-ego. Margot Robbie has the advantage of playing a fictional character, which allows her some latitude in developing Kayla. It’s an open question whether she’s better here or as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. She should get a nomination for one or the other.

Roach, who has graduated from the belly-laugh fare of Austin Powers and the Meet the Parents movies, has moved to more politically-minded productions. (His previous theatrical feature was 2015’s Trumbo.) One could argue that there’s nothing “political” about Bombshell, dealing as it does with the downfall of a sexual predator, but the fact that the film’s backdrop is Fox News and the screenplay approaches the work environment with a none-too-friendly attitude makes that a hard point to argue. Putting aside any partisan angle, however, Bombshell works on the more basic level of a true-to-life David vs. Goliath story where David triumphs.

No attempts are made to “humanize” Ailes. From the beginning, he is perceived as a user and manipulator, sequestered within his protected domain, entitled to ask young wannabe-hosts to hike up their skirts above the panty-line. His brazenness goes unchecked and he remains sure – to nearly the end – that he is untouchable. Ailes’ comeuppance is accompanied by the surge of righteousness that accompanies the defeat of any monstrous cretin.

Bombshell wisely keeps candidate Trump far in the background, recognizing that involving such a controversial figure in a primary role would further polarize audiences and make the movie seem more like an anti-Republican screed than an exposé of a villain who happened to be a Republican. Trump appears only in archived footage and only when his interactions with Kelly were too prominent to be ignored.

With Bombshell, thanks in large part to the contributions of his actors, Roach has crafted a compelling “ripped from the headlines” motion picture that unfolds like a page-turner. Unfortunately, with little room for nuance or detail, it lacks the depth necessary to make it more than a superficial dissection of what amounted to low-hanging fruit in the 2010s series of major headline sexual harassment revelations.

Bombshell (Canada/United States, 2019)

Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Malcolm McDowell
Home Release Date: 2020-03-10
Screenplay: Charles Randolph
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2019-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1