I’ll make it clear right from the start, I was not the target demographic for Jay Roach’s Bombshell. This tale of sexual harassment within the ultra-conservative walls of Fox News at first glance is a story disconnected from the rest of the world. Roach and writer Charles Randolph thankfully disagree and a film that could have been bogged down by the political leanings of its players concentrates on the universally damaging nature of abuse. The beauty of Bombshell is it doesn’t limit itself by the types of abuse, instead showing how the actions of one man created a culture.
Following the events that took place leading up to the ouster of media titan Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) from Fox News due to his prevalent and systemic sexual harassment of female employees at the company. Based around the lives of anchors Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) along with the up and coming staffer Kayla (Margot Robbie), Bombshell is a look inside the machinations of a company at war with itself, from the viewpoints of various different levels of its infrastructure.
If that makes this biopic seem somewhat cold and robotic for a true story that should seem larger than life, that is probably because at times Randolph’s script forgets the human factor in favour of shock and awe, the kind of things that make your skin crawl but never really connect you to something. One specific scene in which Kayla has to display her panties for Roger is utterly damaging and nauseating, as it should be, but the after-effects are blown over in a film that feels pressed for time. Despite Robbie’s terrifyingly authentic performance, her time feels squandered in a film that, even at 109 minutes, could have run longer.
Roach’s rat-a-tat approach to plot progression has to leave certain things up to guesswork and viewer intuition and the fast pace makes for a thrilling feature but quiet moments are played with a constant eye on the clock. Interspersed throughout the film are moments when Theron’s Kelly sits down with Roger to discuss her approach to discussing Donald Trump, a fun little plot point that uses sexism as a punchline while pointing to its greater impact outside of the four walls of the newsroom. These moments prove to provide respite from the collection of montages that progress the plot while forgetting about the characters. Despite these moments being more relaxed they are full of snappy, sound bite dialogue, the kind of thing you would hear on a news program, only these two aren’t supposed to be on screen.
Randolph has written his characters like they are being constantly watched, which in Kelly/Theron’s case, might actually be true. It does add to this notion of paranoia within a company known for keeping secrets to protect its reputation but it isn’t the kind of voyeurism that makes these characters uncomfortable, the kind of pervasive surveillance that comes from sexual harassment. Here, Randolph has made his characters participants in a circus, one where the audience is always watching. He has turned them into characters in a film. A climactic scene where Robbie relays what happened to her while out on a date is weirdly played as spectacle and if it wasn’t for a pitch-perfect performance by the deserving BAFTA nominee, the scene would feel invasive for all the wrong reasons.
In fact this happens more often than Bombshell wants to admit and it really points to how good the casting is here that certain issues can be ignored. Not only is Robbie at her best but Theron brings gravity to her version of Kelly, while never ignoring the hypocrisy inherent in her story. Kidman, however, is stuck with a raw deal, a character not given enough to do, instead, playing the lynchpin in progressing the story while never really having much to say. Unfortunately delving into imitation instead, Roach weans her out of the story as quickly as she enters.
The whole thing wouldn’t work however without Lithgow whose version of Ailes is confrontational, stubborn, narcissistic and despite all that, brilliant. Randolph and Roach never ignore the sheer power and intelligence of the man in fear of minimizing the weight of the crimes he was allowed to commit. Yet Lithgow often plays the man as pitiful, a person no longer the vital, important figure he once was. It might just be the most well-rounded character on display which makes him sickeningly real.
While there are some obvious and often unavoidable issues surrounding Bombshell, Roach lets his actors take centre stage and rightfully so and thanks to three gripping performances in Robbie, Theron and Lithgow, this story of hypocrisy, greed and abuse of power makes for important yet uncomfortable viewing.