Bombshell review: fair and (mostly) balanced

These legs were made for walkin’ in Bombshell, Jay Roach’s drama about the women who took down Fox News CEO Roger Ailes

“I hate being the story,” Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) grouses early on in Bombshell, long before Jay Roach’s biopic has even delved into the nitty-gritty of the sexual harassment allegations against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. For the moment, Kelly is the subject of a Twitter attack by President Trump that puts her, instead of her work, in the national crosshairs. Despite her unease with being reported on instead of reporting, this bizarre incident indirectly influences what would become an unprecedented chain reaction within the conservative news network – a historical moment that would push women who stridently describe themselves as not feminists to take care of their own and utilise a whisper network in order to oust a sexual predator.

Bombshell’s most impressive achievement, even more so than the transformative prosthetics, is crossing the ideological divide to make these women sympathetic to audiences who may not share their views but can appreciate their fury and their sacrifices.

Which is not to discount the incredible makeup and costuming that transfigures three instantly recognisable actresses (Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie) into women who, while distinctive, are nonetheless indicative of the standard “look” of Fox News’ female correspondents: blonde (with the occasional brunette), toned, and squeezed into tight dresses to show off legs for days. And the man behind the gams-obsessed edict? That’s John Lithgow, grotesquely captivating as Ailes in all his paranoia and lascivious control. He is the corrupt general and unapologetic villain of a compelling drama that transports audiences directly into the trenches of Fox News, where its good little soldiers are beginning to question their orders. In a three-pronged story led by Kelly, longtime anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman), and entry-level composite character Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), not even a rightwing network can ignore the crimes perpetrated against its female employees.

That Bombshell revolves around a trio seems deliberate: They loosely occupy the mother-maiden-crone trifecta in their more adversarial moments, at other times embodying the prophesising powers of Macbeth’s weird sisters, or the fates of Greek mythology, readying to snip the thread of life. They are furies without being dismissed as shrill harpies – finally pushed to drop the uncomfortable smiles in favour of getting truly angry.

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Yet despite the marketing and trailers converging on the striking shot of all three women riding the elevator, that is the only moment in the film that all three leads directly interact. It’s a powerful commentary on how you can work alongside your peers – nearly clones of one another, down to the bandage dresses and nude stilettos – and still not realise that you’re on the same wavelength.

While Kelly tries to avoid winding up on Trump’s 3am tweetstorms, or the morning talk shows’ rosters, Carlson is lining up the first shot. Fired from Fox News, she files a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, contextualising her termination within her refusal of his sexual advances. Though the resemblance is less convincing than Kelly, or even the actors playing Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) or Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind), Kidman brings a quiet fury to Carlson’s struggle that likely has some foundation in how Hollywood treats women of a certain age.

The lethal combination of ageism and sexism is all the more harrowing in considering how much of the movie Carlson spends fighting it alone. In contrast to Kelly’s cadre of younger female employees (one a new mom, one a Canadian on a work visa) and a straight white male ally (Rob Delaney), Carlson is isolated for much of Bombshell’s story. She may be knocking over dominos, but the majority of her work is done outside of the Fox News offices and communicating through lawyers and hearing secondhand about what, if any, impact she has made. It highlights the risks of her speaking out, knowing that it’s equally likely she will spark a revolution as that she will wind up standing alone, just one voice instead of a sea of them.

Theron’s Kelly is the heart of the movie, and the actor plays her with a bullish intensity that’s also at times reserved as she denies that she is part of the establishment. The voice, the coolly appraising gaze, and the set of her shoulders all construct a trick-mirror reflection of a figure who is wholly sympathetic within the bounds of this story yet still intensely problematic outside of it -which makes for a disquieting viewing experience.

To wit: at points Kelly speaks directly to the audience, going so far as to take them on a tour through the various floors and caste system of Fox News, in a live-commentary style that almost feels like she’s the center of an investigative documentary; alternately, it brings to mind the tell-all framing device of Robbie’s I, Tonya. Yet it’s inconsistent; and while Carlson’s plot uses a similar device, her fourth-wall breaks are even more carefully chosen, so that these intimate confidences feel few and far between. Are we being brought fully onboard, or only invited in to glimpse certain strategic moments?

And if neither real woman’s struggle properly moves you, there’s Robbie’s Kayla. Drawn from extensive research into various Ailes accusers, she is a way into the story unburdened by whatever other opinions, or legally binding gag clauses, might already be attached to public figures like Kelly and Carlson.

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But therein lies the problem with this fictional character as audience proxy: no matter what happens, Kayla is not adequately rooted into either side of the story. As a bright-eyed new hire from Florida, she initially lacks the audience’s knowledge about Ailes’ predatory nature – really, she seems to be the only employee at Fox News completely blindsided by what is depicted as a rather open secret. By the time she has gone full “Anchor Barbie,” Kayla still has the opportunity to consider a life outside of the Fox News bubble, even as she experiences the most visceral onscreen harrassment. Jess Parr, another invented character played winningly by Kate McKinnon, provides a fascinating dimension of queerness and various forms of being closeted at work, but is ultimately underutilised and unsatisfyingly an ancillary part of Kayla’s arc.

Bombshell slyly twists Ailes’ lecherous defense of his ogling of Fox News’ women, saying that “it’s a visual medium,” into part of its message: There are so many excellent nonverbal moments, from McKinnon’s signature microexpressions as Kayla begins her death row walk to Roger’s office to the moments of connection between staffers as the Fox News whisper network builds to a dull roar.

While the powerhouse trio take on the brunt of the story, Bombshell does not crystallise until it moves beyond the confines of that elevator. As support begins swelling among the ranks of identical Anchor Barbies – contrasted by the telling allegiances to Roger from several of the network’s stars – the cracks begin, gratifyingly, to show. It is unexpectedly moving to recognise a bevy of familiar actresses – hailing from such varied series as Battlestar Galactica to House to Twilight – in the movie’s several montages. Their presence, intentionally or not, feels like a nod to Hollywood’s #MeToo movement that would break a little over a year after the events of this story.

While its subjects sometimes seem to receive too soft of a touch, Bombshell is nonetheless a vital piece of the #MeToo conversation. One can only hope that it is the beginning of a trend, and that someday there will be an entire subgenre in which Bombshell can exist as one story for one group of women. For now, it is compelling enough to reach a variety of audiences looking for a fair and mostly balanced account.

Bombshell opens in UK cinemas on 17 January.