Was it planning or mere serendipity that timed the release of Bombshell to coincide with the beginning of the trial of Harvey Weinstein? Perhaps some canny PR person at Lionsgate, the movie’s distributor, was keeping a weather eye on the court calendar. Or maybe there’s simply something in the air these days about women deciding, like the anchorman Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s classic satire Network, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!”
As radically as we perceive the television landscape having changed since that movie came out in 1976, the comparison has not become irrelevant. “Television will do anything for a rating…anything!” Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky told interviewers at the time. “The American people are angry and want angry shows.” Forty years prescient, he could’ve been talking about Fox News in 2016, when Bombshell’s story unfolds. And the shameless way in which Fox has both tapped into and cultivated the fear-based, frustrated zeitgeist of rightward-leaning viewers is as much what this movie is about as the issue of sexual harassment.
More than that, Bombshell is a meditation on big-business culture in general, where conformity and unquestioning loyalty are expected to trump any personal qualms about what one’s employer is up to. Not everyone at Fox News is privately drinking the Kool-Aid, we’re told – ideology is the product being pitched by leggy anchors in miniskirts seated behind Lucite desks, not necessarily the raw material – but no one may deviate aloud from the company’s mission statement. The picture being painted here by director Jay Roach, screenwriter Charles Randolph and a crack crew of actors could apply equally convincingly to a corporation that’s polluting the environment or hawking balloon mortgages.
In fact, the latter was the subject of the screenplay that won Randolph a well-deserved Oscar in 2015 for The Big Short. While Bombshell isn’t nearly as good a movie (and certainly not in a league with Network), much of its entertainment value derives from employing many of the same sorts of narrative tricks that enabled viewers to follow The Big Short’s twists and turns through the arcane complexities of the modern banking world. There’s plenty of explanatory fourth-wall-breaking, especially from a terrific Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, primary guide for our backstage tour of the “news” network and crux of the dramatic question of what it will take to trigger a sea-change in a toxic corporate hierarchy.
Its weaknesses fall along the same plane: Bombshell name-checks so many characters at and around Fox that it can be hard to follow at times. Tony Plana mugging in Geraldo Rivera makeup feels obligatory, adds nothing to the story. Other characters more pertinent to its unfolding get referred to only briefly, sometimes without even a last name mentioned. Janice Dean, for example – a rare staff member who actually talked with her female colleagues about harassment and encouraged them to come forward – is referred to simply as “Janice in weather.” Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox around the same time as CEO Roger Ailes due to harassment charges, is a can of worms left mainly unopened – although he is glimpsed (Kevin Dorff), and two key composite characters played by Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon are production staff for his show.
There’s an awful lot of material packed into Bombshell’s 108-minute running time, much of it surprisingly entertaining for a movie about such a grim and downbeat subject as the sexual exploitation of women in the workplace. Randolph’s zingy script deserves considerable credit for its arch tone, and Roach – trying hard these days to elevate a directorial reputation associated in most minds with the lightweight Austin Powers movies – does a creditable job of keeping things moving along at a brisk pace without losing us.
But most viewers will be drawn in primarily by the acting. The three focal women – Theron as steely Fox veteran Kelly, Robbie as ambitious “Christian Millennial” Kayla Pospisil and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, first to break ranks and sue Ailes after he punished her with a demotion for dodging his sexual advances – are all mesmerizing, although exactly how naïve Robbie’s character is supposed to be is left a little unclear. Her distress in the movie’s cringiest scene, in which Ailes insists on Kayla hiking her dress ever higher behind the closed door of his office, certainly is played as genuine.
The toughest acting job falls to the great John Lithgow as Ailes, weighed down by a six-piece fat suit and piles of face, jaw and neck prostheses. More than the hours in the makeup chair, his primary challenge was to take a man who was genuinely despicable and play him as something a little more complicated than a mustache-twirling villain. For viewers to buy that people, especially women, would go on working for him year after year, the actor had to give Ailes a little bit of an avuncular quality, like that annoying relative who keeps getting invited back to the holiday party despite the fact that being in his company after he knocks back a few beers is predictably an ordeal. Lithgow nails it. It can’t have been fun, but he’s a pro.
Lots of A-list character actors get their brief turns here, not all of them wasted. McKinnon reliably lights up the screen, even though her character Jess was invented to provide a mouthpiece for closeted LGBTQ and progressively inclined staff at Fox. (Once you’ve worked there, Jess and other characters note, it’s hard to leave and find work elsewhere – you’ve been tainted by the company’s reputation for shoddy, sensationalized journalism.) Allison Janney does her usual rough magic as the traitorous Susan Estrich, Ailes’ formerly feminist attorney; Connie Britton has a heartbreaking bit as loyal Beth Ailes having her nose rubbed in her husband’s perfidy; Malcom McDowell makes Fox owner Rupert Murdoch seem almost a decent human being as he cuts Ailes loose at last, while Alanna Ubach embodies Jeanine Pirro as perhaps the vilest diehard member of Team Roger.
While Bombshell doesn’t entirely jell as cinema, it’s a noble experiment whose time has certainly come. The next few years should bring us more onscreen to chew on with regard to pervasive rape culture in the business world and how women are pushing back. Meanwhile, as Harvey Weinstein discovers that the light at the end of his tunnel is the headlight of the oncoming #MeToo locomotive, it’s thought-provoking indeed to be reminded that this train first left the station at Fox News, where, in 2016, nobody dared call herself a feminist.