Directed by Jay Roach.
Starring Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Stephen Root, Alice Eve, Ashley Greene and Mark Duplass.
When a recently sacked anchor makes sexual harassment allegations against Fox News boss Roger Ailes, a tangled web of misconduct is uncovered.
Since the era of #MeToo began in earnest following the allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, cinema has been struggling to catch up. Movies such as Eighth Grade and Support the Girls have grappled with the changing gender politics of modern society, while TV shows like GLOW and stand-up specials including Hannah Gadsby’s acclaimed Nanette have proven to be ahead of the curve.
With the Fox News-set drama Bombshell, though, the movies have finally fired their first, definitive salvo in the #MeToo era. Perhaps appropriately, the film is a somewhat ungainly, slightly clumsy and ultimately problematic tale. Undoubtedly, though, its heart is in precisely the right place.
The film focuses on the workplace culture at Fox News in the wake of allegations from sacked anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) that she was harassed by CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Star anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, under some very impressive prosthetics) ponders whether she should join her co-workers in backing the boss, while ambitious newbie producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) deals with her own unwanted advances from Ailes. When the scandal intensifies, the entire future of Fox seems to be at stake, just as Donald Trump begins to ascend to the White House.
Bombshell is a movie that seems acutely aware of its own political importance. In an era in which the “based on a true story” title card is often an opportunity for cheekiness, this one reads like a sober, carefully worded legal disclaimer. This is, oddly, a movie about rage and injustice which seems scared of being held to account itself. When the righteous, and justified, anger froths to the surface it’s compelling. but the movie seldom has the courage to snarl its message about the macho toxicity of the media, and of corporate culture in general.
This leaves the film rather short in terms of its central messaging. It never truly grapples with the fact that these women are fighting back against a patriarchal structure that they themselves, as Fox News presenters, have actively reinforced for their entire careers. Indeed, this movie’s Fox is framed ultimately as a bizarrely progressive environment, with the Murdoch family in particular characterised as reasonable, benevolent and not at all evil.
There’s an interesting movie to be found within that contradiction, but Austin Powers director Jay Roach and The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph – notably both men – seem more intrigued by narrative and stylistic trickery than actually dealing with issues. The first act of the movie is bogged down with odd interludes, strange timeline juggling and a quite stunning lack of coherence as a result. Much like the Randolph-penned The Big Short, this is a film so pre-occupied by its own cleverness that it trips over its own feet.
Once Bombshell settles down, though, and sheds more light on its stellar central performers, it finds the energy it needs. Theron is excellent as the conflicted Kelly, but it’s Robbie who is the standout as the “evangelical millennial” producer determined to graduate to an on-air role. Her forbidden relationship with a co-worker – she has stunning chemistry with Kate McKinnon – is under-explored but easily stands as the most interesting storytelling device. Robbie’s character is a fictional creation, comprising the stories of several real women, so it’s surprising that she emerges as the most human figure within the story, particularly in a phone call with McKinnon which thrums with trauma and unspoken emotional pain.
Perhaps the biggest problem at the centre of Bombshell, though, is Lithgow’s Roger Ailes. Buried under so many prosthetics that he looks like a beached whale spent a night of passion with Jabba the Hut, he is never anything more than a jowly cartoon. Every line is delivered with a spittle-flecked yell and it’s impossible to take him at all seriously, even when he’s deploying his chilling reminder that “it’s a visual medium” to justify his roving eye and inappropriate sartorial requests. Given his role here is essentially to stand in for the spectre of abuse as a whole, he’s lacking in depth and, crucially, he isn’t ever scary.
But it was wrong to ever expect Bombshell to be perfect. This is cinema dipping its toe into a murky nightmare which the real world is still struggling to fully comprehend. Its focus on legal safety seems to prevent it from fully unravelling the complex web of this true story, leaving behind a movie that is frustratingly surface level, despite its impressive performances and slick filmmaking flair.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.