Hollywood has always made biopics and true stories, but it’s interesting to see how films cover events that have only recently occurred. The challenge doing this is obvious; a historical film has the benefit of adding insight as to why an event set a precedent or changed the game, and that’s harder to do when the events are so close to the current time that their impact isn’t entirely clear. Thankfully, Bombshell has its finger on the pulse because its impact is clear and obvious; the Roger Ailes scandal was the first in what became a watershed moment of those in power being held accountable for sexual harassment.
So if the impact is clear, then what does the film add? For the most part, its perspective. Bombshell works best when it shows the environment that allowed someone like Ailes to thrive, the excuses and processes that defended him, and most importantly, the women that he affected. While the satire of the ideologies of Fox News and their common talking points is often played for laughs, the depiction of harassment is done with a sickening detail that makes for one of director Jay Roach’s strongest efforts to date. There are obvious points in which characters feel like amalgamations of multiple people and real events are treated like a “connect the dots” to fit the narrative, but when it comes to the actual characters and performances, Bombshell is respectful and mostly successful.
Based on the real scandal, the film follows the immediate aftermath of the firing of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) from Fox News, and details Carlson’s lawsuit of sexual harassment of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). As the allegations enter the mainstream coverage, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) begins to investigate the claims herself as she feels pressure from the network to disavow any of Ailes’s accusers. Concurrently, a new employee, Kayla (Margot Robbie), becomes indoctrinated within Fox News’s culture and has her own interactions with Ailes.
The division of the story between the three leads gives three unique perspectives; Carlson has reached a breaking point where she’s been cut off by the network, Kelly is at the height of her career and must balance what she’s willing to sacrifice to maintain success, and Kayla is a novice trying to make her way up the chain and serves as an appropriate audience avatar to see what the workplace culture is like. The screen time is mostly balanced and there’s a wealth of entertaining side characters to challenge each character’s point of view; while some of the prosthetic work used to emulate real people works better than others, its a convincing mirror of fairly recent events that doesn’t get to goofy with its makeup.
Theron is one of the greatest living actresses, and has a unique ability to transform herself onscreen. She’s nailed all of Kelly’s mannerisms and vocal patterns, but what’s important is that she has to deepen our understanding of someone we primarily know as a screen personality. Theron has to both put on a performance as Kelly and a performance as the persona Kelly projects onscreen, and to do so is impressive, especially considering how widely known Kelly is. It’s interesting to see the gradual shifts in her behavior as the investigation continues, and the depiction of how someone seemingly has so many allies, yet must work outside the system, is interesting and often more thoughtful than first expected.
Kidman and Robbie do great work as well as two women on opposite sides of trauma; for Carlson, the trauma has existed for a long time and has built to this moment of action, and for Kayla the events are fresher and impossible to cope with. The film doesn’t neccessarily grant these characters enough time to emote or interact, as it becomes more focused on advancing the plot mechanics, but the performances are strong enough that the human element is never lost; it seems apt, but they’re able to go beyond the headlines.
Director Jay Roach has certainly had an interesting career arc; starting off with comedies like the Austin Powers trilogy and Meet the Parents, Roach transitioned into a series of political HBO dramas such as Recount, Game Change, and All The Way, with 2015’s Trumbo marking his foray into cinematic awards consideration. Trumbo was a largely traditional film, and with Bombshell there’s evidence that Roach was trying to spice up his style with elements similar to his counterpart Adam McKay, including fourth wall breaking and a lot of news footage. Unfortunately, this never really works, as the dialogue isn’t clever enough to justify a quirky narration element, and the fourth wall breaks are oddly inserted and feel more like an exposition crutch than a stylistic choice.
Roach’s docudrama style though is successful for the most part; it never feels explicitly clear that we’re watching a recreation, and the up close and personal style makes the more shocking scenes all the more intimate and tough to watch. There’s a natural element of news coverage that is inherently baked into the story, and it makes sense that the characters in the film would be directly reacting and responding to news stories, but the mix of authentic news clips and recreations sometimes feels awkward and puts the film at odds with itself.
Bombshell is a performance heavy film, and I think with a story like this its best if the technical elements are subdued enough to the point that any overt stylistic choices are able to steer clear of the performances. Lithgow is thoroughly disgusting and makes for a compelling threat, and the three central performances are empathetic to their experiences (the film never seems to overtly discuss their political beliefs, which is okay since that’s not really the point of the story). While it sometimes feels like a generalization of events and can lack the nuance when discussing the large scale impacts, there’s no bad intentions behind Bombshell, and I appreciate the perspective it provides. Grade: B