A film of contradictions and different tones, Bombshell is engrossing and horrifying but not as good as it should have been.
Fox News, run by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) as part of the right wing media empire of Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), faces the music when major female presenters – including Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) – are galvanised into reporting Ailes’ sexual harrassment.
A male director and writer seem questionable decisions, though director Jay Roach was handpicked by star (and producer) Theron, and writer Charles Randolph was writing a script as the situation unfolded. To their credit, there’s no hint that the two are ignorant or dismissive of what the women went through – it’s surprisingly sensitively made. It just might have been more hard hitting had it been made by women.
Roach never ogles – in fact one particular scene is so excruciatingly, skin crawlingly grim that you get the sense he was acutely sensitive of the need to horrify, not titillate. Foregrounding very different (complicated) women – a mixture of real and composite characters – rightly gives the film a female centric focus.
Randolph’s script takes Carlson and Kelly’s real life experiences – with very different approaches to respective situations – and blends them with a composite character (played by Margot Robbie), offering a distilled perspective on the harrassment and company climate, while paying tribute to many (named and nameless) victims.
Using a composite character also frees the film up from what drags it down – Theron and Kidman are centre stage, but in trying to flesh out the real women who’ve had the power to tell their stories, it feels less relatable, particularly Carlson’s privileged post Fox life, or Kelly’s detachment from the plight of other women – “I’m not a feminist” is her mantra.
It falls strongly on Robbie’s amalgamated character Kayla to do the the heavy empathetic work – and while this often succeeds, the conflict between real and composite does the plot damage. After all, all these women suffered – but we have more empathy for the invented character than the real life women, which feels off.
I called this film contradictory because it focuses on the most polarising TV channel on the planet – staffed by ghastly “journalists” and right wing nutjobs – and tries to toe a delicate line. Of course you empathise with the women – no question! – but it’s disorienting to know they indulged in bare faced lies, racism, homophobia and misogyny and got paid handsomely for it. This film forces you to juggle the ethics of your response, and Roach intersperses some – but not enough – of the main characters’ horrendous views in a failed attempt to address this.
Technically, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Jon Poll use an almost handheld, documentary style alongside cleverly utilised real footage, real life interviews cleverly splicing in actors and staged confrontations that feel organic but intimidating (the maggot brained satsuma of a president is prominently featured, just to warn you).
Set designers give us the cramped, bland offices (cleverly laid out for us in a meta introduction from Theron) that feel tangibly uncomfortable, especially contrasted with vibrantly colourful studio sets. Contrasts between the homes of the stars and low level staff give a sense of distance between top and bottom, while composer Theodore Shapiro’s score – largely forgettable – sporadically uses sampled, eerie female voices to strong effect.
Without its actors and the incredible work of make up artist Kazu Hiro, Bombshell would not be half as good though. Theron is absolutely transformed into the poised Kelly, so much so that it’s unnerving – even if you don’t know what the presenter looks like, most people will honestly not know it’s Theron. This is largely thanks to Hiro’s almost magical work (as in Darkest Hour), but also because the actress alters her voice and accent to eerily inhabit Kelly.
It’s one of those impersonations that benefits from the actor not just imitating, but also leaving a mark. Kelly’s a frosty, hard edged and professional presenter who never lets her veneer crack, until all her psychological juggling gets the better of her. Theron engenders sympathy even as she dismissively sneers at the world, though never makes Kelly truly likeable – brash scenes with underlings and others are memorably harsh.
Robbie does a tough job very well, Kayla shifting from headstrong evangelical Fox superfan in her dream job to a victim whose eyes quickly and dramatically open to reality. She is excellent in more tender scenes with Kate McKinnon’s cynical colleague, but is outstanding and gripping in horrible scenes with Lithgow’s Ailes. By the end, Robbie emanates the pain, horror and resignation at what Kayla’s sacrificed.
Kidman is second lead, but her transformation is less effective and more distracting. She also suffers from Carlson being less involved, ploughing her own way forward as the trailblazer. She’s good but there’s not much for her to do, and it really should be seen as an extended cameo.
John Lithgow’s the malevolent, corpulent and festering heart of this film, relishing Hiro’s remarkable transformation and portraying an absolute monster. From his first scene you’re disgusted, whether by his appearance, views or the foul things he forces women to do. Lithgow’s strong track record playing similarly horrendous men means when it gets grim, it’s like watching a shark, while later, as his world crumbles, Ailes is a pathetic, shambling mess – it’s all grimly entertaining to watch.
A large and impressive supporting cast include McKinnon’s closeted, quippy colleague, whose problematic actions and storyline detract from the considered performance. Rob Delaney as Kelly’s concerned and compromised yes man, Allison Janney’s female lawyer (!) representing Ailes and spouses played by Connie Britton and Mark Duplass are most notable of the extended remainder. McDowell’s Murdoch is sadly underused, the great actor gnawing the scenery as he clearly loves playing the Aussie bastard.
See Bombshell for its performances and transformations, more than for any perceived political messages or rallying calls. It could have been even better but is caught in trying to toe a line.