For the large portion of Americans who revile Fox News and the state-media mentality it represents, just the idea of wandering through the network’s insides might sound quite unpleasant. However, right in the opening minutes of Bombshell, Charlize Theron invites us on in. Breaking the fourth wall as former anchor-turned-2016-Trump-foe Megyn Kelly, Theron guides the audience into the chaos of the news corporation’s inner lair. Theron’s chameleon transformation is outright: she charges through the labyrinth of hallways and newsroom cubicles without ever leaving sight of the camera, enunciating each syllable of each word with neat organization and sharp dialect work to match (at least to my small knowledge on the latter). An unseemly blend of satire and empathetic docudrama, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph deliver Bombshell as a brash and playful recounting of the Fox News sexual harassment scandals’ that brought down chief executive Roger Ailes (a vampiric John Lithgow). It’s an endeavor that decently succeeds at making such an infuriating topic into an engaging (maybe fun?) ride, battling through the thinness that comes with a more light approach and anchoring its wacky tone in a foundation of empowerment.
Shifting from Kelly’s Trump feud to the sexual assault charges filed by ousted Fox and Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson (a sincere Nicole Kidman) and the traumatic experiences of fictionalized new hire, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), Bombshell combines media sensationalism, high-pitch caricatures, and sensitive insights into the plight of women exploited by powerful men. It’s an ambitious gamble, one that turns the lunacy and contradictions of the past several years into a wild, colorful mixed bag. Although the narrative of Bombshell belongs to its women, Roach’s resume yields a natural fit with the material. After all, the past decade had found the filmmaker shedding his comedic background (from Austin Powers to Meet the Parents) for timely fictionalizations of political turning points, with the HBO movies Recount followed up by the Sarah Palin centered Game Change, and the Black List period piece Trumbo. With Bombshell, Roach synthesizes those two career modes, while benefiting from The Big Short screenwriter Randolph’s ability to probe dark conspiratorial forces with a playful humanistic touch.
Despite the ultimate focus being on Ailes’ downfall, Bombshell begins as Kelly’s show alone, on the eve of her fateful gig moderating the 2015 Republican debates. Theron embodies Kelly with a fierce individuality that wrestles free of Fox biases: “Trump has a problem with women,” she says. “I want to ask him about it.” And so she does, as millions of Americans witness a showdown that continues to play out in the coming days, with Trump’s notorious assertion (“there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”) driving the perception of a Trump antagonist in the lion’s den. Kelly’s practical mentality sits at the center of the movie with a compelling air of contradiction: she’s at once eager to tow the company line even as she drags it in her own directions. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer,” she says. But the media just sees her as another star, and when her own fame eclipses her subject, it begins to take a toll on her personal life, culminating into a pacifying interview with Trump at his gold-plated tower. The filmmakers wisely relegate Trump to media clips, cutting Theron into the story when the footage calls for it, and letting her argue through the circumstances in backrooms. While her frustrated husband (Mark Duplass) tells her she let the presidential candidate off easy, Kelly’s at a complete loss — trapped between allegiances that force her longstanding relationship with Fox to start to unravel.
All of this, though, serves more as a preamble for the broader forces in play. Right as Bombshell begins, Kidman’s Carlson has already been fired from the network and is plotting to take on Lithgow’s Ailes, who roams the hallways with a calm regal air when he isn’t inviting eager female staffers into his office for devious reasons. That’s where Robbie’s Kayla comes into the picture. A wide-eyed young Fox super fan indoctrinated to its conservative agenda since youth, the character is reportedly a composite of many staffers who became Ailes’ victims over the years. And the embellishment show its seams in some of her zanier moments, but her first grotesque encounter with Ailes’ lustful ways marks a high point in the movie’s ability to approach its chief subject with an unflinching gaze. The first meeting between Ailes and Kayla becomes an infuriating encapsulation of workplace abuse that gives greater weight to the more gratuitous instances implied later on. Bombshell has enough to juggle with its three women and the terrible man who unites them in a company-wide lawsuit, but the film may be a bit overloaded with supporting roles, some more effective than others. Kate McKinnon stands out as a closeted left-wing lesbian who takes Kayla under her wing; the underutilized character’s amusing monologue about how she wound up trapped in a job that goes against every fiber of her being practically deserves a movie of its own. Elsewhere, there’s also some bit parts for notable real-life figures that are shunted more as cameos; such as Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani and Malcom McDowell as Rupert Murdoch.
Still, Roach and Randolph often work overtime to keep the material engaging. Seen most when one character references dedicated Fox viewers who keep the network on so much that the logo has been burnt onto their TV sets, and then the logo suddenly appears in corner of the frame, just in case you didn’t get the picture. But fortunately, these big swings fall to the wayside as the movie doubles down on the process that leads to many women coming forward, including Kelly herself. It’s gratifying to see the bad man get his due, even if the movie stops short of elaborating on what comes next, from Ailes’ death months later to Kelly’s own career undoing during a short-lived stint at NBC. Bombshell doesn’t attempt to provide the definitive Megyn Kelly story, opting instead to hover in the moment that made her a big name, and assumes audiences can fill in the blanks. But it’s Theron’s performance that helps Bombshell even work in the first place. She’s a performer that never begs for the audience’s love. She can come across as remote, but also read as supremely self-contained. She shows you her character’s existential isolation, which is often where a characters’ humanity lies. And you see that in Bombshell, which strengthens its realism, along with the prosthetics she wears (special make-up artist Kazu Hiro’s work throughout the film is quite impressive), and the husky drag in her voice, all helping her into Kelly’s uncanny double. Even thought the film may not fully give Kelly’s story, Theron doesn’t soften her.
Bombshell fairly rejuvenates a familiar plot with galvanizing energy, sizzling with the potential to become the first major movie response to sexual assault since #MeToo became a household term — celebrating the kind of determination necessary to actually take a stand (something, I could see some finding exploitive). As the movie documents the outrageous fallout of the Ailes accusations that drove the network against itself, it also mines genuine insight into what it takes for women to clap back at their abusers — and why others struggle to do so. Though it’s light approach may not help its thinness, Bombshell‘s occasional gut punches, trio of great performances, and tragicomic soul ultimately keep it alive.