*** out of ****
(for sexual material and strong language throughout)
Released: December 13, 2019 limited; December 20 wide
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Alanna Ubach, Holland Taylor, Richard Kind
A film need not be fair & balanced to be credible, and that’s the duality of Bombshell.
Director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph take their separate brands of satirical political indictment and mix them together to mostly good effect in this exposé of the sex scandal that brought down Fox News head honcho Roger Ailes.
Their sensationalized #TimesUp potboiler eschews nuance, can’t resist grinding axes and, outside a few salacious details, doesn’t reveal anything we don’t already know, but astounding transformations by Charlize Theron and John Lithgow (supported by what may be Margot Robbie‘s career-best work) make Bombshell more sobering than what Roach’s past partisan biopics would suggest.
Roach’s all-star HBO docudramas Recount and Game Change (about, respectively, the 2000 Florida Presidential recount and the John McCain / Sarah Palin 2008 campaign) were pandering Emmy award fodder that, in terms of sophistication, were little more than cheap slabs of red meat for left-leaning soapboxing. Conversely, Randolph’s screenplay for The Big Short (about the intricacies of the 2008 financial crisis) garnered him a worthy Oscar win.
Combining those styles into a formula would be a fair way to describe Bombshell at its most basic level, with Randolph’s voice winning out. Roach is served well by Randolph’s ability to distill details into a clear, clever narrative, even if their joint penchant for expository theatrics and melodramatic excesses are more indulgent than provocative.
Nothing here is as complicated as the subprime mortgage bubble that Randolph had to unpack and streamline in The Big Short, so seeing the same audacious techniques applied here (breaking the fourth wall, et al) feels unnecessary and a bit desperate.
Even so, Roach also uses them as an entry points into the characters – Megyn Kelly especially, who Theron (with the help of subtle, precise makeup) virtually clones the former Fox News superstar in look, cadence, posture and persona. It’s hard not to do a double take, the makeover is so dead-on identical and total.
Her convincing portrayal, however, will also likely be a fascinating Rorschach test. Kelly, the film’s primary heroine, is someone that liberal Fox News haters (a.k.a. the film’s primary audience) has culturally cancelled. Bombshell doesn’t merely ask us to sympathize with Kelly’s plight and her necessary moment of moral truth; it wants us to admire her for her courage. Indeed she should be, regardless of what one thinks of her professionally, but personal animus towards her may turn off the very people this movie is targeting, even with Theron’s Oscar-level turn. And that would be a shame.
Roger Ailes is easier to hate, but thankfully here, too, Roach and John Lithgow don’t reduce him to caricature; that’s particularly impressive given the mountain of makeup that Lithgow finds himself under. It’s a small miracle how alive Lithgow becomes, physically and emotionally unencumbered, making Ailes’ volatility erupt out from under the layers of latex.
And even though the conservative media guru was a predatory creep who abused his power while also running a deep paranoid streak, Lithgow plays him as genuine as possible, a true champion of his employees who also becomes cold to his perverse duality when his lust kicks in — exactly as a functioning sociopath would.
The peripheral players are strictly one-note (Kate McKinnon notwithstanding), becoming a bit of a “Can You Name That Actor” game for the various Fox personalities portrayed (Battlestar Galactica’s Number Six Cylon Tricia Helfer is one). Each is given unfair short-shrift or, for a handful, a flyby character assassination; some deserving (and documented), others more dubious.
Aside from the sex scandal, Bombshell takes digs and potshots at Fox News and its culture, many of which undercut the film’s desired veracity and only plays to biases. By contrast, thankfully, the core #MeToo drama is intensely compelling, serious, and effectively disturbing.
Starting with Gretchen Carlson (played earnestly enough by Nicole Kidman, who can’t help but be overshadowed by Theron’s metamorphosis), this is a profile in courage that transcends political prejudice – or at least should, if you drop your own – that will hopefully give strength to others, specifically to the kind of women that Robbie’s ambitious (and fictional) upstart is a surrogate for.
Ultimately, though, a certain cloud can’t help but hang over Bombshell, one that (in part) is no fault of it its own. Namely, that it is the second dramatization of Ailes’ downfall following the Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice from this past summer. Meanwhile, the stories of disgraced liberal media icons like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and their courageous victims aren’t even in development, let alone made.
No single movie can tackle them all, and Bombshell can’t be held responsible for not deviating from its focus. The disparity is more telling about the mainstream media itself, an insular bubble that still appears more likely to pile on targets it already has contempt for rather than tackle the same insidious offenders — and evils — within its own walls.