Telling a true story through a work of fiction can be a difficult thing. How dramatic is the truth, really? How much do you bend for the sake of your medium; how fancifully do you write that nonfiction book? How snappy is your “based on true events” movie?
With Bombshell, Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph look to highlight not only a true story, but one that might feel like it was just yesterday for any American news-minder, though they’d be forgiven for losing track of scandals in the wake of recent years’ ongoings. Neither the triumph it should be nor the failure it could have been, Bombshell is a glossy look at a dirty situation.
Director: Jay Roach
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Based on the sexual harassment scandal that took down Fox News titan Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), Bombshell follows three women working at the network and their eventual collision in the breakthrough case. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is one of Fox’s top anchors, having worked years to carve out a slice of the pie and accrue power in an industry dominated by men and misogynists. Meanwhile, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) has been let go from Fox in an unfair dismissal, and is turning her past harassment at the hands of Ailes back on him and the network, filing suit.
Finally, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) is a young Fox staffer working her way up the ranks, eventually being put into one of Ailes’ uncomfortable, derogatory and predatory casting sessions. Carlson and Kelly are real people, caught up in the 2016 takedown of Ailes, while Pospisil is fictional character.
With subject matter as serious as sexual harassment and coerced sex, Bombshell decides early on that it doesn’t want to be a dreary procedural, practically opening with Kelly’s to-the-camera narration and a snappy (and quite ugly) newsreel montage of exposition on Roger Ailes. It’s easy to cite Martin Scorsese as an influencer on fourth wall-breaking narrators, with Henry Hill’s recounting from Goodfellas sticking in the minds of cinephiles the world-round, but Roach is no Scorsese. Though Bombshell remains consistent with its narration, never dropping it for too long, it can feel a bit trite and fluffy when the story kicks into high gear.
So much of Bombshell‘s heart comes from its three leading performances and, as if there would ever be any doubt, the leads nail it. I had to double take with Charlize Theron’s performance, not that she particularly transforms herself, physically, for Megyn Kelly. Rather, the demeanor she adopts, both in mimicking Kelly’s pattern and tempo for speech, as well as they way she carries herself, is indicative of Theron’s talent. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie turn in strong performances as well, with neither feeling cliched while they could have veered that way. For being the single fictional character among the leads, Robbie’s Kayla channels a level of naïveté while not being simplified to a helpless victim. Unfortunately, the strong performances can’t carry the entire film.
Intrinsically tied to the 2016 presidential election, and the rise of Donald Trump, the time frame in Bombshell can become a bit too wagging of its finger, almost treating mentions of the election like cute or funny cameos. The film never distracts itself too much with pursuing what went wrong with the 2016 election, and the very-real involvement Megyn Kelly had with Trump at the time are certainly acceptable beats to include, but ultimately they feel irrelevant in the film’s central focus of taking down Roger Ailes.
Bombshell takes too long to set Ailes up as its primary focus, with the spectacle of Donald Trump guiding the film for too long. It’s only about halfway through the film that we start to see Ailes as the predator he would be exposed as, which is perhaps an interesting and intentional approach on the part of the filmmakers. Bombshell allows us, through Kayla’s story in particular, to live with the confusion faced by a victim of sexual harassment and manipulation. Presenting Ailes as something more than a simple predator, at least in its early scenes, could give Bombshell a complicated layer of doubt and intrigue. As it stands though, it simply feels as if the film takes too long to set its sights on the point.
Mentioning Kayla’s reaction to her own abuse by Ailes, there’s the real possibility of Bombshell coming across as too lenient in its depiction of sexual misconduct. Though Robbie does well with her scenes, we get little in the way of her post-traumatic reaction to the abuse. It can be construed as weak at best, and offensive at worst.
Far from a failure, Bombshell had potential to go for the jugular in adapting a real story of social injustice and relevance in a stylish, entertaining Hollywood film. Certainly the lead performances are here, and the leading ladies more than carry their share of the burden. It’s just a shame that the film ultimately leans on aping tried-and-true technique and beating around its story for too long.