This star-studded examination of the 2016 sex scandal at Fox News features an impressive impersonation of former Fox star Megyn Kelly by Charlize Theron, but elsewhere the approach by director Jay Roach to the material feels glib and unsatisfying
The Big Short has a lot to answer for. The critical and commercial success of that 2015 Adam McKay film – equal parts 2008 financial crisis explainer and smug meta-comedy – has seen a number of copycats follow in its wake, including McKay's own hyperactive Dick Cheney biopic Vice and Steven Soderberg’s Panama Papers primer The Laundromat. Enter now Bombshell (written by Charles Randolph, who also penned The Big Short), which takes a similarly shallow but fast-paced dive into a ripped from the headlines story. In this case, the sexual abuse scandal at the Fox News network that saw the channel’s avuncular founder, Roger Ailes, accused of multiple counts of harassment against his female employees.
The film centres on three women. Two are real: former Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and the channel’s rising star, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron). The other, Kayla (Margot Robbie), a self-identifying “evangelical millennial” and the newbie at Fox, is a composite of several of Ailes’ accusers. In a smarter movie, this ingénue would have been the audience proxy into this den of right-wing wolves, but the only reason for the character’s creation appears to be as a visual embodiment of victimhood, and her story evaporates once this function has been fulfilled.
Instead, it’s Megyn Kelly who beckons us into the movie and with whom we’re asked to identify. It’s also Kelly who's privileged with the fourth-wall-breaking ability that characterises this mini-genre. Bombshell opens with her taking us on a tour of Fox News’s New York headquarters, explaining direct-to-camera that the channel’s power lies not with Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), the company’s bullish antipodean owner, or his dimwitted sons on the eighth floor, but with Ailes on the second. It’s from this office that he not only dictates the news agenda but also what his female presenters wear (short skirts are a must) and how they look on camera. When Carlson has the temerity to do a segment sans makeup in the name of female solidarity, Ailes barks at her that “nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat through menopause.”
It isn’t just sexist remarks like that one that causes Carlson to sue her boss. He’s also a sexual predator, as Kayla discovers on her trips to the second floor during disturbing scenes of intimidation and humiliation that sit uneasily with the rest of the film’s knockabout presentation. Like Adam McKay, Bombshell’s director Jay Roach has a background in goofy comedies (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents). And much like McKay, he seems out of his depth when a scene requires more than glib satire.
Parallel to this sexual harassment story are Kelly’s struggles with another overweight sleazeball: Donald Trump, whom she clashes with on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. Cutting together footage of the future Commander-in-Chief with Theron’s precise impression of Kelly is an easy way to put us on her side, but it seems rather cowardly not to admit that – misogyny aside – the presenter shares and propagates many of the right-wing views peddled by her knuckle-dragging nemesis. How much more interesting and challenging Bombshell might have been if it let us in on Kelly’s more pugnacious side. It’s as if Roach can’t trust liberal audience members to sympathise with an unlikeable character.
This paper-thin characterisation of its main protagonist is indicative of the film’s well-meaning but shallow approach overall. Rather than explode, this Bombshell just fizzles out.
Released 17 Jan by Lionsgate