Let’s start with the most amazing thing about “Bombshell,” a new movie about the sexual harassment women who worked at Fox News Channel were forced to endure by Roger Ailes.
As she did in “Tully” and “Monster,” Charlize Theron changed her look and voice to match Megyn Kelly’s so perfectly that after just a few minutes, you forget you’re not watching the real thing. There isn’t a wrong note or moment in her portrayal of a woman torn by her loyalty to Roger Ailes, the man who made her a star (portrayed in full prosthetic and bombastic glory by John Lithgow). The film shows Kelly struggling with whether to come clean about her past experiences with him or step up and risk her career by taking on such a powerful man.
That ball began downhill with a push from Gretchen Carlson, well played by Nicole Kidman, who had been demoted for refusing Ailes’ sexual demands. Margot Robbie’s character — Kayla Pospisil, a composite of several women at FNC — also found herself a target of Ailes’ disgusting treatment and insistence on “loyalty” (i.e. performing sex acts on him).
As sympathetic as “Bombshell” wants to be to those women, I found myself conflicted. Not over the criminal way they were treated by Ailes and other men in the toxic environment he created, but in the knowledge of how they had all been part of the sludge-fest of a network he had created. They were part of a propaganda machine that disseminates lies, misinformation, character attacks, racism, homophobia, fear of immigrants, distrust of other media, and pure hatred for anyone opposed to their self-righteous views. In other words, they laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s America, and for that I can never forgive them or anyone else who’s been part of it. Moreover, they were right there in the midst of all that male bravado and cruelty, but didn’t speak out against it until it served their own purposes.
Still, “Bombshell” is quite well done and includes a helluva supporting cast, from Mark Duplass to Connie Britton to Stephen Root to Robin Weigert to Kate McKinnon to Richard Kind to Jennifer Morrison to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch. The only actor miscast is Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, a lawyer who had done legal analysis for FNC and came aboard as Ailes’ attorney. Estrich has a raspy voice, which Janney imitates, but it doesn’t work, serving as a distraction in the scenes she appears in. I was surprised because I’ve liked everything else I’ve seen Janney do.
Writer Charles Randolph proved his abilities with the script for “The Big Short,” so the dialogue in “Bombshell” is crisp and clever. Director Jay Roach is an old hand at movies with a political bent, having made “Game Change” (about John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate) and “Recount” (about the 2000 Gore/Bush election and the hanging chads), both for HBO. Roach also made “Trumbo,” which I admired quite a bit, and two of Ben Stiller’s Fockers movies, which I didn’t. In “Bombshell,” Roach gets the look of everything — not only Theron — just right, as well as the attitudes of the people who worked there, including the horrible Jeannine Pirro, Neil Cavuto, and Geraldo Rivera.
Since he uses the real names of most of them, I was surprised Robbie’s character is a fictional composite, but perhaps there are legal reasons for that. She is the character we see being directly victimized by Ailes, a scene Robbie plays beautifully with tension, panic, and darting eyes. She also is the only one who gets to call out Kelly for not speaking up sooner, a move that could have saved Kayla and other women so much humiliation.
In the end, of course, Ailes was kicked to the side by Murdoch and his sons with a huge severance in the tens of millions of dollars (like one of his other stars, Bill O’Reilly). At the time, Ailes was sure FNC would fall apart without him, but it has only grown stronger because of the ego and power of its number one fan at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the schisms it has created in a far-from-united country. As Kate McKinnon’s character explains at one point, fear and hatred are the greatest motivators, and Ailes’ creation dispenses them like candy on Halloween.
Meanwhile, what happened to Kelly? She maneuvered into a morning TV show at NBC that was an absolute failure, and when she was let go there, her golden parachute brought her to a nice, soft $65 million landing. Carlson got a settlement from the Murdochs for some $20 million. However, neither of them has returned to TV, nor are they likely to anytime in the near future, as the stench of their FNC work still lingers.
So, unfortunately, does the sexual harassment of women in the workplace by powerful men, as the rise of #TimesUp and #MeToo continue to prove. What Kelly and Carlson and others endured at Fox is only part of the overall story.
“Bombshell” is well told, but not a great movie. And I wonder what kind of audience it can deliver, since Trumpophiles and Fox fans won’t go near it. I give it a 7.5 out of 10.