BOMBSHELL (2019) – Review
Wishing that your feature films inspired by true events were of a very recent nature? More so than last week’s RICHARD JEWELL (23 years), or those docudramas from last month, DARK WATERS and THE REPORT, both from the early part of this decade. Here’s one that reaches back about three years, and it’s still happening, although not dominating the media as it did. Last year a terrific documentary, DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES from director Alexis Bloom, pulled back the curtains on the cable TV goliath Fox News, giving us an unflinching look at the history of it and its founder, Ailes. A big part of that film concerned his on-air talent with stories of the lawsuits leveled against him and his staff which added fuel to the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements. Now comes the big-screen treatment, from a celebrated director and an Oscar-winning screenwriter and starring a cast lead by two other Oscar-winners (and a third one for support). All these ingredients combine to create an explosive BOMBSHELL.
In the heat of the presidential campaign of 2016, Fox News is changing course in order to ride the tide of its viewers’ increasing support for unlikely contender Donald J. Trump. Surprised Fox News head Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) assigns the network’s shining star, prime time queen Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) to moderate the next televised debate. But she pulls no punches and soon earns the Twitter wrath of Trump (along with his Fox News watching followers). As Megyn takes some time off to plot her next move, another female anchor is feeling a different kind of heat. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is tired of the sexist jabs and comments as the only woman co-host of the network’s morning show “Fox & friends”. In order to diffuse the situation, she is given her own daily show, though with a smaller budget and not in a great time slot. As Carlson begins to chafe at the intense editorial interference, she opts to consult her lawyer before the ax falls on her program (and career at the channel). Back in the editorial cubicles, AKA “the trenches”, an ambitious new hire, Kayla (Margot Robbie) begins her “dream job”. After briefly “learning the robes” from veteran staffer Jess (Kate McKinnon). Kayla begins the climb up the corporate ladder to go from behind the camera to anchor. But can she pass the private “audition” for Ailes? And what happens when Carlson’s legal team begins to “chip away” at the network? When Kelly hears of this, will she speaks out or will she remain “loyal”? As the newsroom turns into a war zone, how long will it take the owner, global media titan Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) to step in?
The talented trio sinks their teeth in this script as though it were the finest gourmet dish. First and foremost, since the character is the network’s “queen” is Theron who brings a calculating cool to the often conflicted Kelly. She’s riding high until the quickly changing political tide begins to buffet her journalistic ideals (yes, she works there and has some left). Through her eyes, Theron shows us a person who is suddenly “woke”, knowing that her viewers and some in management are pushing against her. It all works toward a terrific character “arc finale” as she (in more ways than one) “testifies”. The other anchor that helps hasten her turnabout is Carlson played with controlled calm by Kidman. Her pleasant smile is a mask, hiding her mounting frustrations first as the “gal in the middle” than as the banished “reader” given little support from the “higher-ups”. These two vets make a great contrast to the “next-gen talent” represented by Robbie in the composite character Kayla. In her early scenes, she beams as though it was her eighth birthday, her bouncy walk sending her from one “magic” spot to the next. She’s ecstatic and so very ambitious, leading her straight to her dream job’s seedy side. This gives her a tragic air as she sees her dreams shatter. That destroyer is played by the superb Lithgow who makes Ailes a sinister but easily offended tyrant, a mix of Mr. Potter from that Yuletide classic and the alien overlord he hears people call him behind his back. This leads to his howling rants as the events of the film’s last act push this “wounded snake’ into a corner. The rest of the ensemble is filled to the brim with wonderful stars popping in for a quick moment, from Allison Janney as Ailes’ Long Island lawyer to Connie Britton as his stoic wife to McKinnon’s tragic secretive staffer to a wonderful comic actor, and inspired choice as Rudy G (yes, that one).
Director Jay Roach has made a name for himself for starting up several comedy franchises (MEET THE PARENTS and Austin Powers) while helming award-winning HBO topical political flicks (“Recount” and “Game Changer”). Here he combines those skills mixing the laughs with scathing social commentary, though never quite diving into whimsical satire like last year’s VICE, though the stakes here aren’t quite as high (the Fox offices are a war zone, but lawsuits rather than bullets whiz past). It helps that the smart script by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (THE BIG SHORT) delicately balances the farce and tragedy. For instance, we get a peek at the ladies wardrobe room at Fox with anchorwomen straining to squeeze into all manner of high heels, girdles, corsets, push-ups bras, and too tiny skirts. It feels like an odd mash-up of backstage burlesque and soldiers donning armor before heading out to battle. We find some truth in the latter in the film’s dramatic centerpiece when Kayla has a “private’ audition/interview with Ailes. As he leers and barks to raise that dress “Higher! C’mon higher!”, Robbie conveys the degradation and humiliation that, as the “Me Too” has stated, is so very common. But we see the strength of these women as they fight back and even confront each other over ethics and integrity (the story’s main hero is taken to task for not sounding the alarm sooner). And special kudos must go to the makeup artists for evoking the real subjects without burying the actor is mounds of latex and masks, from the bloated Nero of Ailes to the remarkable nose and lips of Kelly. Another huzzah to the editing and effects techs who drop the actors into several scenes with real (still on air) reporters and political figures. They all give power to a BOMBSHELL, its explosion making a very loud “wake up call” to action.
3.5 Out of 4