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Review: Bombshell

February 8, 2020

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

A timely film about sexual harassment at Fox News, Bombshell had so much potential but, aside from some solid performances, it’s just not very good. The film has some good scenes, but overall it’s an awkward, choppy mix of fact and fiction that ends up feeling like a heavy-handed TV movie.

It nonetheless received a trio of Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Charlize Theron and Best Supporting Actress for Margot Robbie, as well as Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which is arguably the most well deserved of the three nods. This is a work of “Oscar bait” after all, so the recognition isn’t exactly surprising.

The film dramatizes the events that led to Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) stepping down as the head of Fox News in 2016 following multiple allegations of sexual harassment, rocking the political and corporate media worlds in the midst of the divisive presidential election. This story is told mainly from the perspectives of three women, including former Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who was the network’s biggest star at the time.

The film documents the harassment suit that Carlson filed against the former CEO, as well as Kelly’s initial reluctance to go public with her own allegations against Ailes, despite Carlson’s urging for her to join the lawsuit. During the events depicted in the film, Kelley also became a target of then presidential candidate Donald Trump – an avid watcher of Fox News – after he took issue with her questions about his derogatory comments towards women during one of the debates, and his figure looms large over the film. We do get a sense of how the station had and continues to have incredible political sway.

The third character is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an idealistic new recruit at Fox News who is sexually harassed by Ailes as she starts to rise through the company. Kayla is a fictional character who is said to be a sort of amalgamation of different women, and it’s here that Bombshell started to come apart for me. Robbie does deliver one of the best performances in the film, including an uncomfortably long but sensitively handled scene in the office of Roger Ailes and another moment later on when she breaks down on the phone.

But her character comes across as little more than the one-note creation of a Hollywood screenwriter, and the fact that Robbie breathes life into her is purely a testament to her strengths as an actor. Kayla is not only a young conservative woman who gets her dream job at Fox News, a station we are told her fundamentalist Christian family watches religiously, but she also happens to be a closeted bisexual, a plot point that feels crowbarred in and is little better than “queerbaiting” in terms of representation.

We find out about her orientation when she has an affair with co-worker Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), another entirely fictional element. McKinnon’s character fares even less well in terms of feeling like a screenwriter’s exaggerated creation, coming across as a “woke” sitcom caricature. She is not only a closeted lesbian working at Fox News, but also a closeted Hillary Clinton supporter, as Kayla finds out after their one night stand. This part of the film is played mostly for comedy, and it feels weirdly out of place in a supposedly fact-based drama.

The film is directed by Jay Roach, who is best known for comedies like the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents films, and got his experience in political dramas directing the HBO movies Recount and Game Change. Roach brings a lot of stylistic touches to the table, including fourth-wall breaks, with Theron’s Kelly acting as our narrator and tour guide through the halls and power dynamics of the network. The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style, with quick camera zooms and bits of archival footage worked in. The Fox News logo is even burned into the corner of the screen at one point to symbolize the viewers who never change their channels.

I think it’s pretty clear that Roach is trying to do what fellow comedy director turned prestige filmmaker Adam McKay did so well in his Oscar-winning films The Big Short and, to a lesser extent, Vice. But he isn’t quite successful, and we are left with a film that feels oddly disjointed, with some of these stylistic choices being overly showy and distracting. The screenplay is by Charles Randolph, who incidentally co-wrote The Big Short with McKay, but it lacks the precision and focus of that film and the three stories at the centre of Bombshell never quite gelled together for me.

The performances are the main draw of the film. Theron has gotten most of the praise, and she is very good here, but she is also merely doing a Megyn Kelly impersonation. It’s a great and often uncanny impersonation, mind you, helped a lot by the seamless hair and makeup work, but it doesn’t really go deeper than that. As I mentioned earlier, Robbie deserves credit for bringing humanity to her portrayal of a stereotyped fictitious character in a sea of mostly real people. But I also wish that she had gotten an Oscar nomination for her brilliantly underplayed performance as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood instead, a film that blended fact and fiction far better than this one.

The takedown of Roger Ailes, which preceded the #MeToo movement by a year, is an important story to tell. The film does deserve credit for attempting to expose the culture of secrecy and loyalty at Fox News that caused many to be complicit in covering up his reign of sexual harassment for years, including the station’s infamous “leg cam” and the creepy “beauty tests” that Ailes would put women through in his office. Lithgow also delivers an excellent portrayal of Ailes that manages to be both deeply unsettling and understated, capturing his insecurities and paranoia while also being careful not to make him into some sort of sympathetic character.

But Bombshell doesn’t really go deep enough, and there is a sort of “uncanny valley” feeling running through the film, with the presence of entirely fictitious characters and plot elements ultimately sinking it for me. On the one hand, we are watching a ripped from the headlines drama, and on the other hand it’s the story of a fictionalized victim of a very real predator. This creates a disconnect to the material that I just couldn’t overcome, no matter how good some of the individual parts and performances are. “Frustratingly mediocre” is how I would ultimately describe it.

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