Principal Cast : Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Kate McKinnon, Katie Aselton, Bridgette Lundy-Paine, Bree Condon, Kevin Dorff, Alice Eve, Spencer Garrett, Richard Kind, Amy Landecker, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, Tony Plana, Alanna Ubach, Mark Evan Jackson, D’Arcy Carden.
Synopsis: A group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.
Bombshell has multiple problems, all of which aren’t it’s fault and sure as hell are entirely a matter of timing. The takedown of Roger Ailes, long-serving head of the reviled conservative pulpit for gullible Americans Fox News, over multiple allegations of gross sexual misconduct, was done barely six months before the release of this film. The terrific Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice, which starred Russell Crowe as Ailes, debuted in June of 2019, and essentially told the exact same story, only with the focus spread more evenly across the very same players we see here in Jay Roach’s film. I rated The Loudest Voice the second best TV show of 2019 behind only Chernobyl (which is no small feat), driven by Crowe’s magnetic, hypnotic performance as the belligerent Ailes and Naomi Watts as former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Bombshell is a film struggling to extricate itself from the shadow of the long-form television series simply by being a feature film, lacking the breadth to nail the same feelings of anger and rage that bubbled alongside Crowe’s commanding work. Not for lack of trying: Bombshell has a stellar cast and is led by the A-list trio of Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron, but Roach’s approach to the material, while often quite strong, lacks the withering precision of Loudest Voice’s ensemble material.
As the 2016 American election cycle ramps up, it is fast becoming apparent that Donald Trump is on track to become the Republican Nominee for the Presidency. Fox News anchor Megan Kelly (Charlize Theron), who co-chaired one of the final televised debates of that cycle, questions Trump about his relationship with, and treatment of, women, to which he becomes angry and fires off a stream of post-debate tweets. The resulting furore sees Megan Kelly become the target of a hate campaign, whilst Fox New head Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) only sees a spike in ratings. Around the same time, fellow Fox News host Gretchen Carlson is fired from the network after multiple arguments with Roger, and promptly decides to sue for sexual harrasment. Initially, Fox and Ailes dispute these claims, however as time wears on, more women within the organisation come forward to tell their own stories about Roger’s sexual inappropriateness towards them. Even eager young up-and-comer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) has been harangued by Ailes, and her personal desire for career success conflicts with her internal struggle to come to terms with her own harassment. The conflict becomes even too much for Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) and his sons Lachlan (Ben Lawson) and James (Josh Lawson), who must step in to quell the disquiet.
Given that Bombshell tackles the exact same ground as The Loudest Voice, it was always going to be difficult to differentiate itself enough to remain compelling. Casting John Lithgow as Ailes was a masterstroke, mainly because he can play this kind of bullish asshole type blindfolded, he’s done it so often. Unfortunately, not even Lithgow is good enough to topple Crowe’s take on the man, reduced to mutterings and rancid leering to generate the kind of villainous antagonism a film like Bombshell needs in order to work. Having the star-wattage of Theron, Kidman and Robbie, all of whom work wonders with the sparse material, also helps, but the film flounders with giving them each specifically meaningful arcs that offer nuance and a sense of completeness. It doesn’t help that Robbie plays what the film calls “a composite character” meant to represent a variety of unnamed women Ailes harassed (I guess, it’s not very clear), and that the role is indistinct from the bevvy of women populating this mighty cast – and what a cast, from Allison Janney to Kate McKinnon to Alice Eve popping in minor or supporting roles to add weight (read: prestige) to the production – but they all do solid work regardless of the veracity of what transpires on the screen. Even Malcolm McDowell, who pops in as Rupert Murdoch with a pretty decent Australian accent, seems to be in fine form, while Josh and Ben Lawson, actual Australian acting brothers, are given nothing of note to do in their minor roles. It should be noted that this marks the second time in six months that Murdoch has been portrayed by a British actor (Simon McBurney did so in The Loudest Voice) and that to their credit they both to bang-up jobs! From top to bottom, as far as the performances are concerned, this film is blue-ribbon across the board.
It’s not even really a question of writing: the script goes hard with the things we actually know about from the real case notes, and adequately compiles time jumps and narrative requirements to compress ideas with a large degree of acuity. Charles Randolph’s script handles most of the characters well, although perhaps not as evenly as I had liked: the film is primarily narrated by Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson, who side-eyes to the camera several times as if we’re watching her specific story, but then the story takes off on tangents with the Megan Kelly and Kayla Pospisil characters without bothering to shift gears ideologically. Is Gretchen giving us her opinion on what the other two women said or did, or are we meant to take the Kelly/Pospisil scenes as factual? It’s a confusing thing, really, and that bothered me more than it should have.
No, the problem with Bombshell is that it didn’t surprise me. The rise of the #MeToo movement can be traced directly through this moment in Fox News’ history, when women in the entertainment business started fighting back against the harassment they endured for so long. That’s awesome in and of itself, but the film doesn’t do anything different or better than what we saw in The Loudest Voice. It offers very little difference of opinion, although it could be argued that Roger Ailes’ prominence in Bombshell is downplayed so the female perspective is highlighted. If that’s all it has to offer, then why not just watch The Loudest Voice? Bombshell is a victim of time; it came along six months too late, and offers far less than the television series before it. It is still worthwhile: hell yes, this is a story that should be told endlessly (and personally, I want the blood-and-guts drama of Bill O’Reilly’s exit from the same network; that piece of shit deserves it) but much like all Hollywood projects that mirror another in quick succession, one if typically better than the other. Bombshell, whilst handsomely mounted and well intended, lacks the same fire and bile The Loudest Voice projected so eloquently. The rush isn’t the same.