Following in the footsteps of Adam McKay’s mixed bag efforts into the realms of political takedown cinema, Jay Roach steps up to the plate. As a filmmaker with similarly comedic roots – Roach helmed all 3 Austin Powers films as well as Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers – Roach stepped out of his niche a few years ago with the genuinely very good Trumbo starring an excellent Bryan Cranston. Now, Roach is taking on the big guns; much like McKay tackled economic disaster and one of the most hateful men in American political history, Roach squares off against the giant multimedia conglomerate, Fox. It’s a shame Roach pulls his punches.
In 2015, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was sued for sexual harassment. Bombshell follows the build up and the fallout of a crucial couple of years in recent political history through the eyes of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), two former Fox News anchors, and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing a number of Ailes’ harassment victims. In the looming shadow of the 2016 Presidential Election (yes, that one), the pressure is turned up on Ailes as his web of predatory employment begins to unravel.
Bombshell is a performance-first film. The visuals leave much to be desired and instead the film places its hope on the ensemble it has at its disposal. The main 3 bare the heaviest load to varying degrees of success. Theron’s performance as a woman stuck at a crossroads of professional development and personal justice, knowingly and tragically aware of how she climbed the ranks to become the then face of Fox News, is a good one. Theron is a talented actress, and she plays the part she was given with far more subtlety than the woman she’s portraying probably deserves. Kidman is the film’s strongest performer as Carlson acting on a dangerous combination of impulse and hope that she will be supported. Kidman is relegated to a bit part player in this one, more of a beacon of hope for our characters who appears here and there, but when she’s on screen she fizzles with the energy of someone out for revenge.
Robbie, however, doesn’t leave as strong an impression. For all the talented supporting performances we’ve seen in the last 12 months, I’m staggered that the Academy picked this one to be one of the supposed 5 best of the year (this one’s for you, JLo). There’s no doubt Robbie is an extremely talented actress and has fully earned her nominations in the past, but in Bombshell, it feels like Robbie’s nomination is based on two scenes (the initial harassment and a phone call). Robbie has a magnetic energy to her performances; you can’t help but be drawn to her, but Bombshell hams up the character to such a degree that she becomes a caricature. Kayla is a plucky, young Republican, striving to do anything she can to reach the top of her kind’s propaganda machine, Fox News. As a result, Kayla is clichéd, lacking in any sort of depth compared to her friend and confidant, Jess (Kate McKinnon). Her composite nature doesn’t give her the chance to be a real human and instead becomes someone who does nothing more than utter catchy buzzwords for the audience to recognise.
Stripping away the two strong performances from Theron and Kidman, Bombshell starts to reveal itself for what it is. From the very first minute, it plays its hand as a film heavily inspired by The Big Short, and opts for a fourth wall breaking, documentarian look at a Fox newsroom, led by Megyn Kelly. Don’t get too comfortable though, because Roach abandons that style almost immediately; it had served its purpose as a lazy excuse for exposition. Then it transforms into a quirky, almost Officeian fly-on-the-wall single camera effort, introducing its main players as they go about their day. Finally, it tries to become a Serious Piece of Filmmaking, as it confronts its central themes of sexual harassment and inequality in the workplace. I would say it confronts these head on, but they’re more given a cursory glance in favour of playing an obnoxious game of Guess Who?.
Bombshell exists in a toxic modern day. The events of the film are startlingly recent and have a crushing sense of futility given the events of the years that follow it. One of the main reasons Bombshell struggles to nail its message is because of how far removed we are from the case. Barely 5 years on isn’t enough time for the events to have been truly addressed or dealt with. Given the short time frame between now-and-then, it felt as if Roach and his writer, Charles Randolph, were scared. So many of the characters in this film are either still in the public eye or have become household names in the years since and as such, Bombshell doesn’t want to piss off too many of them. For instance, a disastrously embarrassing appearance from Richard Kind, playing Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, was so badly mishandled I held my head in my hands at the conclusion of his scene. Giuliani doesn’t need help to look a fool, so portraying him as a genuinely competent human being felt like an appearance approved by Giuliani himself.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a crushingly real problem faced around the world. The lawsuit against Roger Ailes is one of the most high-profile cases in recent memory. With this story, Bombshell had an opportunity. It had a chance to place a mirror in front of a society and show them exactly what’s happening, show them why it’s happening, and deliver a message for everyone to do better. Bombshell didn’t do this. Mild spoilers follow, but they’re needed to showcase exactly how Bombshell missed the target.
Exhibit A – Kayla’s initial harassment. This scene is the first time we see for ourselves exactly what goes on behind the locked doors of Ailes’ office. Ailes (John Lithgow) asks his prospective hosts to spin for him as he believes short skirts and legs are what keeps his audience watching. Ailes asks, Kayla spins, and the scene gets worse from there. Kayla is forced to hike her skirt higher and higher as Ailes locks his eyes on her upper thighs as they’re slowly revealed. Kayla is as terrified as Ailes is turned on. It’s meant to be an uncomfortable scene, but the decision to also focus the camera on Kayla’s thighs and eventual crotch is as bad a miscalculation as I’ve seen in some time. The impact of this scene is in the emotion of it. Kayla is evidently terrified, an emotion abundantly clear on her face as her eyes well up and her lips quiver. On the other side, Ailes is at his most powerful as he leers towards his young employee’s privacy, he’s almost drooling at what stands in front of him. What you need to know from this scene is painted clear on its two stars’ faces. The predatory camera angle doesn’t allow the emotion to be felt; Jay Roach just wants to show us how hot Margot Robbie is.
Exhibit B – Megyn Kelly and Kayla’s only conversation. Late in the film, as Megyn ponders supporting Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes, Megyn confronts Kayla. She asks her what happened with Ailes, and Kayla reveals she gave into him. What follows is the film’s biggest mistake. Kayla asks Megyn why she didn’t step forward all those years ago when Ailes harassed her. Kayla suggests that, had Megyn stepped forward, none of this would have happened and it wouldn’t have happened to anyone else after her. Bombshell blamed the victim. I’m staggered this was a scene written into the film. In the age of #MeToo, Bombshell delivered a bombshell of its own and revealed itself to be not on the side of women at all, played both sides of the incident, and tried to let us decide for ourselves who’s to blame. It’s cruel, vindictive, and utterly shameless for Jay Roach and company to have suggested such a thing.
My frustrations with Bombshell have grown with each passing day. Theron and Kidman’s performances are wasted in a film that masquerades as a high-brow, controversial political satire but reveals itself as a nasty film with nothing noteworthy to say. Its lazy, scattergun style of filmmaking, badly miscalculated appearances, and a criminally under-baked message left me feeling a combination of disappointed, angry, and frustrated. The award nominations it has received will only serve to keep the film in the discussion for much longer than it deserves. Bombshell had an opportunity. Bombshell fucked it.
Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: Charles Randolph
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Rob Delaney