Bombshell is “one of the first features to grapple with #MeToo in nuanced terms”, with “layered” and “subtle” performances from its stars, writes Caryn James.

Wit is the sugar-coating on Bombshell, a film that is surprisingly entertaining given its subject: sexual harassment at the Fox News Channel, and how the anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson brought down their powerful boss, Roger Ailes. Treating the media business with healthy cynicism, the film makes the right-wing Fox News the target of its humour. “Ask what would scare my grandmother and piss off my grandfather – that's a Fox story,” says a savvy producer. The place is as insular and absurd as Alice's Wonderland, with Ailes as its imperious, off-with-their-heads ruler.  

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Beneath that engaging surface, though, is a complex, socially relevant story. Bombshell assumes the women’s point of view and is entirely sympathetic to them. Yet it is also clear-eyed about the difficult choices between self-interest and doing the right thing, and about the compromises people make for the sake of ambition. With layered performances from Charlize Theron as Kelly, tough inside and out, and Nicole Kidman as Carlson, whose soft demeanour masks stubborn determination, Bombshell is one of the first features to grapple with #MeToo in nuanced terms, allowing its heroines to be flawed.

The film inserts Theron into actual news footage of the debate, a technique used well and sparingly throughout

The flashiest element of the film is Theron’s amazing transformation into the real-life Kelly’s double. Theron’s face has been reshaped with prosthetics, which are impossible to discern. She channels Kelly’s speech, lowering her voice and leaning hard on the consonants. And she sets the scene as she addresses the camera, talking and walking us through the Fox newsroom, which reflects exactly what Ailes wants: men who toady to him, women with big hair and short shirts. “I know what some of you are thinking,” Kelly says. “And no, Roger does not tell us what to say on air. He doesn't have to.”

The story begins with Kelly preparing to moderate a Republican party debate in 2015. She famously asked Donald Trump about his derogatory comments on women, only to have him say the next day that she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”. The film inserts Theron into actual news footage of the debate, a technique used well and sparingly throughout. The creators of Bombshell are expert at dissolving the line between fiction and reality, giving it all an amusing spin. Writer Charles Randolph did the same for the 2008 financial crisis in The Big Short. Director Jay Roach has made witty, fact-based political films including Game Change, with Julianne Moore as a confidently ignorant Sarah Palin, and flat-out comedies like Meet the Fockers.

Kelly is the main character and, adhering to realism, she is no liberal, despite the film’s own leftward slant. One glimpse of Theron as Kelly on air establishes that. “Jesus was a white man, as was Santa,” she sternly reminds Fox viewers. And she makes huge, convenient compromises, interviewing Trump a year after the debate and laughing off his vulgar personal attack on her, as Kelly actually did.

Kidman’s role is smaller. Carlson is more idealised and more obviously victimised, but Kidman lets her shrewdness register subtly in every scene. On the show Fox and Friends, Kidman is inserted into a clip of the real co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, and uneasily brushes off their condescending compliments about her looks.

John Lithgow is effectively crude as Ailes, blustery and jowly under layers of padding. When Carlson appears on air without make-up to discuss how women are pressured about beauty, Ailes lumbers into the studio in a rage and yells, “No one wants to see a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.” Carlson, it turns out, was taking notes.

Bombshell includes one stomach-churning, perfectly-acted scene

Tellingly, the film’s weak spot is an invented character, a young producer named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), whose stitched-together traits never quite make sense. Pospisil comes from a conservative Christian family, is at times thoroughly naive yet is also ruthlessly driven. “I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space,” she tells Ailes, pitching herself for an on-air slot. We see enough of her private moments to know that her innocence is at least partly genuine, but she knows exactly what bargain Ailes is asking for when he responds to her suggestion. The creators of #MeToo films always have to decide how queasy to make the audience, and Bombshell includes one stomach-churning, perfectly-acted scene that stands in for all the others. Ailes asks Pospisil to slowly pull up her skirt, Lithgow breathing heavily and Robbie looking pained but compliant.

When Carlson sues Ailes, remarkably the film adds the suspense of a whistle-blower film. Will other women support her story with their own? Kelly wavers because she doesn’t want to destroy her career. Theron doesn’t try to make her likable as we see Kelly’s pure selfishness clash with a nagging sense that she will be complicit if she doesn’t come forward. The film makes her decision seem too heroic, yet it never ignores her nearly-blind ambition.

Kate McKinnon has some of the best comic lines as another fictional producer, closeted in two ways that are unacceptable at Fox. She is a lesbian and a secret Democrat. Among the many minor roles, Richard Kind is miscast as Rudolph Giuliani, then one of Ailes's lawyers. The actor lacks Giuliani's wizened, vampiric look, but it is now more amusing than the filmmakers could have imagined to see his character pop up like some Zelig with unsavory clients everywhere.

Although Bombshell relies on the women’s perspectives, it deftly includes another.  When Ailes is fired by his own boss, Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), he claims he gave these women careers and did them no harm. Murdoch tells him, “There is no audience for that version of the story.” But the harasser’s version is increasingly being explored, not to justify it, but to expose its self-delusion and sense of entitlement. The series The Loudest Voice, with Russell Crowe as Ailes, muddled it. The maligned Apple+ series The Morning Show does it incredibly well, with Steve Carell as a Matt Lauer-like figure. Bombshell won't be the last #MeToo film, but it speaks astutely to this moment.

★★★★☆

Bombshell

Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow
Run-time: 108 mins
Release date: 20 December 2019 in the US and Canada and 17 January 2020 in the UK and Ireland

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