Reactions to Bombshell from some quarters of the online community are perhaps more interesting to analyse than the film itself, which is, after all, a fairly straightforward telling of the Roger Ailes sexual harassment case, just with the inevitable post-The Big Short-style stylistic tailoring seeking to make potentially unappealing material easily digestible. On one level, then, it’s yet another unwanted – as in, audiences aren’t going to show up for it; The Big Short was a one-off – back-slapping Hollywood dive into current affairs. On another, it’s dealing with an area that would evoke immediate sympathy for the parties involved, were it not for the politics of those involved.
Because it seems there are those so outraged by anyone guilty of allying themselves with Fox News and all it represents that they have tended to disingenuous criticism of Bombshell, dismissing it on the basis that “it’s possible to acknowledge that Carlson and Kelly were complicit in an unethical news culture while asserting this doesn’t make them complicit in their victimhood”.
Which sounds all very well and thoroughly commendable in principle, of course, but it would make the film something else. On top of which, I’m highly doubtful such an approach would really be feasible, because any attempt to hit these pre-#MeToo victims with their politics would have exactly the partial effect Britt Hayes protests against. The essential impulse from those of this perspective is not to sympathise with Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and composite figure Kayla Pospisil as positive forces in one context, because it seems you can’t focus on what Ailes did without also seeing them as reprehensible for what they uphold, and without being simultaneously reminded why they don’t deserve to be recognised for that thing.
Clearly Jay Roach, like Adam McKay, is fully intent on leaving the days of broad comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents far behind him, and he’s achieved that with some degree of success, mostly on HBO (Bombshell follows suit; it doesn’t especially exude cinematic flair). I don’t think Roach is a particularly piercing political filmmaker, however. In part, that’s because dramatised rehashes of recent events rarely – at least, of late – offer substantially more than a half-decent documentary. By which, you usually need a really distinctive take to make such a venture worthwhile. McKay had that with The Big Short, but he very much didn’t with the inert Vice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bombshell screenwriter Charles Randolph also co-wrote The Big Short, which means this is a snappy, fast-paced dive into the world of Fox News, replete with punchy factoids about its culture and to-camera addresses.
So for someone like myself, who doesn’t follow Fox News and only has a glancing awareness of the case and even Kelly’s notoriety, Bombshell represents an effective summary of the main points while weaving together a largely coherent dramatic narrative. I wouldn’t argue it’s much more than that, but I don’t know how much it needs to be. There are allusions to the views of Kelly (Charlize Theron), with a clip of her “Santa just is white” remarks, but as above, it would be a besides-the-point distraction to get any further mired in that side. Roach and Randolph furnish more than enough detail to be aware of Fox’s toxicity generally, which is sufficient for the picture’s purposes.
Theron’s very good, naturally, helped by makeup that gives her a resemblance to Kelly without going overboard. Nicole Kidman is much less fortunate as Gretchen Carlson, encumbered by distracting prosthetics that frequently bring to mind the cast of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. I was minded to the view that attempts to replicate the actual figures’ appearance were somewhat unnecessary, but in John Lithgow’s case, it is entirely germane that he should be encased in a fat suit. Lithgow’s performance is suitably excessive too, by turns creepy, paranoid and splenetic. Malcolm McDowell also has a memorable cameo as Rupert Murdoch.
I was less sure about the fictional personas of Robbie’s Pospisil and Kate McKinnon’s closeted (with regard to Fox) Jess Carr, one used to illustrate Ailes’ predatory approach and the other the onus to conform to the expectations of environment in order to keep one’s job. Pospisil in particular is too broadly written, and in the scene where Kelly approaches her, she suddenly becomes a very obvious mouthpiece for the writer.
But Roach has made a solid movie in Bombshell, one that probably doesn’t add anything new to any of the discussions it broaches, but does at least provide a decent actors’ showcase. Well, maybe not for Kidman. That nose in The Hours looks restrained by comparison.