While one depiction of Fox News architect Roger Ailes has recently taken some rewards, Bombshell is looking to take more award glory from a specific part of his story.
Russell Crowe recently won a Golden Globe for his depiction of Ailes in Showtime TV series The Loudest Voice, which covered the whole story, from Fox News’ foundation in the mid-1990s to the 2016 election cycle, when Ailes was dismissed following multiple sexual harassment claims.
This scandal was one of the first #MeToo-era stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, taking place one year before the first wave of Harvey Weinstein allegations became public, and was also notable as Ailes’ dismissal came when Fox News arguably enjoyed a moment of triumph, as Donald Trump turned a strategy based on Fox News TV shows into an election winner.
Bombshell attempts to tell this story from the perspective of two of the real women who filed claims against Ailes, along one fictionalised character drawn together from multiple different people.
Similar to last year’s Vice, this is also a film where the post-Reagan US conservative movement is receiving an exploration on the big screen, although such is America’s current culture war that its likely to be seen as “liberal tosh” by certain US conservatives (and possibly by some in the UK).
As far as its awards hope goes, this is a film largely getting its Oscar plaudits on the acting side, with the drama largely playing through its three poster-placed female leads. To some degree, that feels like both a positive and a negative of Bombshell, as it can be simply reviewed as one where high quality acting is held back by an uneven script.
The bulk of the screen-time follows Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who at the start of the movie hosts a primetime Fox commentary show and has issues with the sexual politics of then-candidate Trump, leading to a clip of a real question and answer session between Kelly and Trump at the August 2015 Republican debate.
It also leads to an initial argument with Ailes (John Lithgow), particularly after she begins to receive a ton of hate mail, and further questions as to what direction Fox should cover Trump.
In parallel, there is dissatisfaction on the part of Kelly’s fellow host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who feels she was demoted from her slot on breakfast show Fox & Friends after complaining about sexual harassment by Ailes and her co-hosts.
Meanwhile, in the newsroom office, ambitious new recruit, “evangelical millennial” and Fox fan Kayla (Margot Robbie) is trying to make an impression, buoyed by the support of longer-term producer and covert liberal lesbian Jess (Kate McKinnon). She then tries to impress Ailes to get a prime network spot, with some very seedy consequences that sets up her arc.
The film largely hangs on the strength of the performance of its 3 main female leads. Theron is the main presence here, and she is a compelling watch. She seems to fully inhabit the character of Kelly, and its inherent conflict in hosting a network she is getting out of sync with.
Robbie has the film’s other Oscar acting nomination and her arc is particularly engaging. She enters as an enthusiastic and excited presence who slowly sinks into the horror of the reality, and she is very engaging in this. The scene of just her and Ailes is a strong central scene, perfectly weighted to show Robbie’s narrative in miniature from eagerness to horror almost imperceptibly at first.
To some degree, Kidman doesn’t get so much to do as the other two despite her character’s mistreatment being the starting point of the story. That’s not to say Kidman’s arc isn’t engaging on its own terms – she brings a fine defiance to the role – but it could’ve had some more airtime. In saying that, her interplay as somebody looking for others to believe her is well done, and in its moments, does well to depict a toxic culture where people don’t want to believe what’s in front of them.
Behind these needs to be a believable villain, and Lithgow is that. He truly sells you on the creepiness of Ailes, while also bring a strange levity to the role at first before gradually becoming nastier and frailer as the allegations mount up.
Yet condensing Fox’s sexual politics issues to just Ailes seems to rob the film of some accuracy. Sexual harassment doesn’t seem to be confined to just Ailes at Fox News – indeed, allegations are still forthcoming against other execs, while some of its most high profile male journalists and commentators have also been binned after being exposed.
It feels that because the film is so determined to zero in on the evils of Ailes that it loses sight of greater issues in the company, even despite its occasional referencing of other cases at the network. This is also in tandem with failing to catch up with the main people, as both Kelly and Carlson said ludicrous things on air and could therefore have been fairly easily written as more anti-heroes than they are.
Not helping either is the conclusion. Sexual harassment allegations at Fox have not finished with the dismissal of Ailes, yet the film seems to wrap up in a “problem solved” manner.
It all adds up to a film that, on its own terms, is decent but lacks a next level position. Bombshell is an engaging film driven by some strong performances, a believe background ecosystem and some compelling individual scenes, but where the whole thing fails to coalesce into something that fully shows the conflict at heart, the reality, or the full picture of what was going on.
As a result, it adds up to something frustrating overall – compelling in its own way, but lacking the final push to capture the full picture.