3.5 stars (out of 4)
Charlize Theron is Megyn Kelly. Nicole Kidman is Gretchen Carlson. Admit it — half the appeal of seeing current-event films is judging how well A-list stars can portray B-list stars. Is it a perfect physical and vocal match? Can a familiar face truly disappear into this kind of role? For the media-politics-legal sizzler Bombshell, the performances are superb across the board. But ace casting shouldn’t distract from the main issue: Unlikely, and in some cases, unlikeable women can change the game.
This is the true story of how a group of female Fox News employees took on the toxic male culture at the network, leading to the ouster of media titan and CEO Roger Ailes. The drama all culminated in 2016, a full year before the iconic #MeToo and Times Up movements. These women should have been championed. The problem is that their politics are, to paraphrase the network’s slogan, not exactly fair and balanced. No doubt this will be a turn-off to many potential audiences. Bombshell excels because it cuts through the noise to paint a surprisingly human portrait. It’s juicy and funny and thoroughly engaging after multiple viewings. And boy is it infuriating.
Theron’s Kelly serves as a fourth-wall-breaking narrator, giving us the all-access pass inside Fox News’ headquarters in New York City. She’s too controversial to be considered a heroine, but thanks to Theron’s flawless work, we do get an insightful glimpse at what makes her tick. An ambitious wife and mother of three, she refuses to let the stomach flu prevent her from moderating a 2015 Republican Presidential debate. She calls out then-candidate Donald Trump for the derogatory way he describes women, knowing full well the confrontation will make for great television and allow her star to rise. It does. Meanwhile, Carlson’s status has plummeted ever since her show was moved to daytime. As she later tells her lawyers, she got demoted because she dared to fight back on-air against her sexist male colleagues. She’ll keep fighting.
If Kelly is the brains of Bombshell and Carlson is the courage, then Margot Robbie as Kayla is the heart. A fictional composite character (based on interviews that the filmmakers conducted with various Ailes accusers as well as testimonials), she’s a wide-eyed Fox News believer and eager to move up the on-camera ladder. What Kayla endures is a series of events that squashes her beliefs, not to mention her psyche. Her disillusionment starts in her first meeting with Ailes (John Lithgow) when he asks her to stand up and do a twirl — “It’s a visual medium,” he sneers — and then asks her to lift her skirt. She’s hurt and confused. Robbie radiates warmth even in this devastating moment. It’s the most significant sexual harassment scene we see; the most revolting occurs off-screen.
The three women rarely interact with each other, though, at one point, they do find themselves in the same cramped elevator on the way down (metaphorically speaking, for Carlson). The scene is appropriately uncomfortable — as is the whole movie. It’s not just the intimidating, bellowing Ailes who leers at his anchor Barbies and encourages short skirts in the workplace. There’s an unspoken knowledge that if you’re a female, the only way to get ahead is to be a team player: Smile through the veneers, stuff your body into Spanx and put up with the crude insults and obnoxious come-ons. Be hot and be cool.
“I thrive in toxic work environments,” is how one female producer (Kate McKinnon) justifies her job, only half-joking. She’s closeted and works for Bill O’Reilly.
Kelly hesitates in joining Carlson and going forward about her own traumatic experience with Ailes. McKinnon’s character befriends Kayla, then later instructs her that it’s for the best that she not confide in her. For every indignant Carlson, there’s a pro-Ailes Jeanine Pirro (Alana Urbach) and Greta Van Sustren (Anne Ramsay). His veteran secretary (Holland Taylor) has zero visible remorse as she marches an unsuspecting woman through her boss’ office door and closes the door. His wife Beth (Connie Britton) proudly boasts that her behavior with her husband is “salty.”
This is all to say these are not the self-righteous women you may expect. They’re morally complex and have prickly personalities. And when presented with doing the right thing, they don’t always come through. But in the end, the villain is toppled. Change happens. And that may be the biggest bombshell of all.
Bombshell opens in theaters Friday, December 13.