Synopsis: Female employees at Fox News take on a toxic male culture, leading to the downfall of media mogul Roger Ailes.
Stars: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Duplass, Alice Eve, Alanna Ubach
Director: Jay Roach
Running Length: 108 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: I’m sure it’s because I’m a lifelong MN but I still recall that night in 1989 when Gretchen Carlson from Anoka won the Miss America pageant after impressing the judges with her talent (violin), poise, and that aquamarine gown. I always felt that MNs should stick together and since I rooted for her so vehemently to win I obviously thought we were best friends so I was dismayed when Carlson turned up on the Fox news network in a morning show that routinely spoke out against issues that I felt strongly about. Now I didn’t follow Carlson’s career closely, mind you, but the station was always in the media for something and she seemed to be at the center of attention – so when she was fired it wasn’t just big national news, it was buzzed about in the local press as well.
Carlson is one of a handful of familiar Fox faces that are featured in Bombshell, a true-ish account of the lawsuit Carlson initiated against her former boss and how it turned into a media frenzy that topped a once-solid empire. Yet from the outset it’s hard to view Bombshell and not address the elephant in the room: Fox News was and is a hugely problematic news outlet with anchors known for stirring the pot, making uninformed statements, introducing unsubstantiated facts, and orchestrating countless take downs of anyone that doesn’t share the agenda they’re pushing. An already uneasy world has been made more dangerous by the untruths they perpetrate – and now we’re supposed to sit in a theater for two hours and watch beautiful female employees at Fox sob about internal misconduct without also examining the fuel they added to their company bonfire? It’s a hard place to get to for some, but I found my way into this world thanks to stellar performances, a sharp script, and assured direction.
As the primary elections are ramping up in 2015, anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde) prepares for the Republican Party presidential debate and doesn’t shy away from asking then-candidate Donald Trump about his poor history with women, welcoming a firestorm of criticism but drawing huge ratings for her network. This pleases her boss Roger Ailes (a sublimely slimy John Lithgow, Pet Sematary) but makes life with her children and husband (Mark Duplass, Tammy) fraught with anxiety. In the same period, on-air reporter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, The Goldfinch) struggles with her own show, thought of to her as a demotion from her prime spot as the third member of Fox and Friends. Seeing the writing on the wall, she engages with lawyers to discuss her options on suing Ailes for harassment should he fire her, willing to bring up his sordid history of propositioning female employees for sexual favors.
It seems Ailes has a long reputation of harassment that is popular knowledge among the staff, save for fresh face Kayla (Margot Robie, I, Tonya) who falls into his trap fairly quickly, with her co-worker Jess (Kate McKinnon, Yesterday) unable to warn her in time. When Carlson is ousted and brings her lawsuit into the public, will the other women at the network stand with her or stay loyal to the powerful man that holds their jobs in his hands? Played out over a span of a year and a few months, the case develops into something bigger when respected people like Kelly stay silent instead of picking a side – leading some to ask if Kelly wasn’t another victim of Ailes, benefited from their relationship…or both.
Working from a script by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), director Jay Roach (Trumbo) uses some clever ways to introduce us to the behind the scenes happenings at the network. A guided tour of the building by Megyn is a good way to give us a lay of the land, separating the executives from the anchors and the anchors from the assistants, etc. etc. Roach and Randolph aren’t above having actors stop and address the camera directly, though they wisely use that oft-employed tactic sparingly so when it happens it has a greater impact. Key people are identified by name throughout and the movie takes considered steps to let us know these are actors playing real people…there is a message before the studio logo, before the cast list in the closing credits, and again at the end of the movie — so they mean business.
It’s the casting where Roach really hit gold. As Kelly, Theron has again gone through a transformation right before our eyes into a completely different person. It’s admittedly harder to see at the beginning when Kelly’s hair was longer but when the short style arrives, watch out, because Theron is on the money with Kelly’s voice, mannerisms, and, with the assistance of Kazu Hiro’s (and Oscar winner for Darkest Hour in 2018) expert prosthetics, an uncanny ringer for the real person. Though she never met Kelly before making the movie, Theron seems to understand her and what motivated her forward, giving her complexities that maybe are a bit generous at times. Kelly was always a slight enigma, that’s partly why she struggled when she moved to NBC news, and failed to connect with a broader audience…Theron perhaps warms us up to her too much. Kidman doesn’t look much like Carlson but with her big hair and pursed lips she has the determined look of a woman smart enough to get her ducks lined up in a row and so resourceful no one even knew the ducks were there to begin with.
Robie’s character is a composite of several different producers at Fox News so she has a bit more leeway to create the role from the top down. After scoring high marks with a fantastic dialogue-free scene earlier this summer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she tops that one with a hard to watch passage with Lithgow as Ailes. Watching her face go through a range of emotions is gut-wrenching but Robie doesn’t overplay it, it’s devastating enough as it is. Her best scenes, though, are with McKinnon who finally shows up in a movie ready to take things seriously. By far her best work to date, McKinnon leaves her goofy shtick at the Saturday Night Live studios and works hard to be a part of the success of the film rather than being the source of the problem.
Roach has filled the rest of the cast with a truckload of amazing character actors playing a number of familiar faces from the network and the world of entertainment. I won’t spoil them all but special mention just has to be made for Allana Ubach’s (Gloria Bell) incredible work as Judge Jeanine Pirro – it’s so close to the real thing your skin starts to crawl until you realize it’s just Ubach under all that makeup.
I still struggled with the whole Fox News of it all, though, and it took me until my second viewing and a lengthy discussion with my partner afterward to lock into what the film was missing that would have helped it along a bit more. There’s no character present that stands in opposition to Fox News or its anchors before all of this happens, only people that turn against the women after they come forward. So we never know if they are shunning the women themselves or the women because they work at Fox News. Having some semblance of accountability for actions before all of the harassment business came to light would, I think, ease some of the discomfort people are feeling after seeing the movie.
Hard to deny, though, that Bombshell isn’t a slick piece of entertainment with an important, but not uncommon story to tell. Closing with a dynamite new song from Regina Spektor, “One Little Soldier”, that sadly didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, my hope is that audiences (even the MN ones!) can put aside their differences of opinion and take the movie for what it’s trying to say. It’s not about politics, it’s not men vs. women, it’s about saying something. Or, as Carlson says, ‘Someone has to speak up. Someone has to get mad.’