There is one particular scene towards the middle of Bombshell that summarizes the experience of the film in its totality. Charlize Theron, completely transformed, both through clever makeup and her own acting prowess, into former television star Megyn Kelly, sits in her car, stuck in traffic, surrounded by pouring rain. Kelly’s husband, played by Mark Duplass, is driving, frustrated not only with the delay but with the rising abuse his wife has taken in the media due to her taking on future President Donald Trump at a debate.
Alongside this rising Trump abuse, Kelly is also trying to decide how to react and respond to the accusations of sexual harassment at Fox News Channel, where Kelly happens to work, that fired anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) has leveled at Fox’s chief executive Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). She debates if she should break her silence and support Ailes, and thus Fox, or condemn the action, knowing full well she has a history with Ailes herself, finding other women to support Carlson and her crusade.
It is amongst this traffic jam, with the heavens pouring down on the car and, thusly, Kelly’s shoulders, that Bombshell director Jay Roach keeps cutting to a road sign that says “stay in your lane”. When it happens the first time, it’s subtle, “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” approach seems novel, even smart. But Roach keeps cutting back to that sign throughout Kelly’s conversation with her husband. After the third time, you have to kind of take the movie by the elbow, pull it aside, and say, “we get it”.
This is the overall experience of Bombshell: a compelling cast, completely transformed and dedicated to their characters, giving their all performance-wise, with a director and script that feels it must erect signs as you proceed down the road of the story to tell you how to feel. With such fine actors, such road signs are unnecessary, yet here we are.
Bombshell tells the story of sexual harassment at Fox News Channel during the earth-shaking United States Presidential campaign of 2016. Controversial Fox superstar Megyn Kelly (Theron), who represents the Fox ideal with perfection (tough, conservative views and amazing looks to complement them), finds herself at the tipping point between company loyalty and personal protection when fired anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) declares that Fox executive Roger Ailes (Lithgow) sexually harassed her.
Fox, led by Ailes, has created an assembly line of Kelly/Carlson-esque on-air personalities (mainly blond, thin, and voluptuous), fostering a workplace that encourages short skirts, lots of leg, and right/far-right viewpoints. Carlson fell out of favor not only because said assembly line was pumping out younger and younger anchors but because Carlson’s viewpoints were, at times, going against the Fox script. As a result of her firing, she decided to take action against Ailes by filing a suit.
With Fox now in turmoil over the accusations, with some employees brazenly supporting their chief executive with ‘Team Roger’ shirts, many women debate whether to come forward with their horror stories. One such person is recent hire Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), whose ambition led her to private meetings with Ailes with potentially disastrous personal results to go with desired career advancement.
It is through Robbie that Bombshell harnesses its true firepower but, sadly, no one else. Theron is, of course, magnificent as Kelly but once you get over the fact that you’re watching an actor looking so much like their real-world counterpart, you must rely on the character itself to carry the rest of the film. And, frankly, Kelly is not a great person. While the film doesn’t shy away from that at times, it also doesn’t want to demonize her since she plays such a key role in toppling an entrenched sexist horror show like Fox News.
And because of that general approach, we can’t necessarily get behind Kelly and use her as an emotional avatar. Let me be clear: this story needs to be told and no matter how much I, or many others, disagree with Kelly’s viewpoints, which have bordered on classist and undoubtedly racist, she, nor anyone else, deserves to be harassed. But in the pursuit of truth, it is okay to depict bad people with sympathy and still recognize they’re bad people. Bombshell doesn’t want to take that step.
This is odd because Bombshell is written by the Oscar-winner behind The Big Short, Charles Randolph. In that film, Randolph, alongside director Adam McKay, never failed to show the complicated layers to its characters, many of whom were quite despicable, and in more overt ways than Megyn Kelly. The Big Short also infused dangerous humor to the proceedings that felt revolutionary: we were laughing at human sadness and suffering yet still felt compassion.
Granted, sexual harassment, especially in the post-#metoo era is difficult to be funny about. And I’m not saying it should be funny on its face, at all. But cranking up the absurdity of Fox News, for example, or how ridiculous someone like Kelly could be, might help put into perspective how terrible the ordeal at Fox News was. That even someone who inspires hate in people, like Kelly, can also inspire sympathy when placed in an unjust situation is a powerful method of storytelling.
That is where Robbie comes in to save the day. While most of the drama in Bombshell is thin, there are two sequences featuring the young Australian superstar that chill the bones and stir the removal of kleenex. The film is sold as a Charlize Theron vehicle, but Robbie steals the show and is worth the price of admission alone. Coupled with her magnificent aura in Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, Robbie is becoming the dark horse favorite for Actress of the Year.
So it is with caution that I recommend Bombshell. For one, any exposure of abuse from those in power must be respected and seen, and it is best felt through the scenes with Robbie. But on an entertainment level, Bombshell doesn’t hit with as much force as it should, lacking emotional power and failing to provide any style to its necessary substance. Watch it, but maybe wait until video?