Bombshell: Blown to Hell, by David Bax
Adam McKay was not the first recent director to turn from broad comedy to political point-making. Jay Roach, who made his name with the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, gained a new identity with the HBO movies Recount and Game Change, accounts of recent real world events that simmered with righteous indignation and to which his newest film, Bombshell, bears more of a resemblance than it does to his earlier work. And yet it can’t help but seem like Roach, in his less confident moments, is aping McKay here. Bombshell‘s quick documentary montage sequences and direct addresses to the camera feel like down-market The Big Short. And when screenwriter Charles Randolph regurgitates some superficial psychology in the form of unloving parents to account for why Roger Ailes, the film’s villain, is such a vile person, it’s almost as lazy as last year’s execrable Vice. Fortunately, most of this stuff is relegated to the first act. Later, when Roach starts to get a handle on his own film, it improves considerably.
Ailes, in case you don’t know, was the head of Fox News up until the summer of 2016 when one of the network’s anchors, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), sued him for sexual harassment. She was soon joined by another anchor, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and others, represented here by a fictionalized composite character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Bombshell, while taking some of the expected literary liberties with the hard fact, unfolds mostly between the time of Carlson’s first meeting with her lawyers (Robin Weigert and Stephen Root) and that of Ailes’ (John Lithgow) departure.
Some of the best–not to mention the funniest–stuff in Bombshell concerns the culture of conservative paranoia that is the Fox News office. Any time Kelly appears to suggest that women have rights, for instance, she must defensively follow up with, “I’m not a feminist!” To the credit of Theron, Roach and Randolph, this assertion is taken at face value. Kelly is not positioned as some warrior in the belly of the beast; Bombshell doesn’t sidestep the fact that this is a woman who both believes and thought it was worth insisting on air that Santa Claus–a fictional, magical character–is a white man. Meanwhile, the need among Ailes’ underlings to prove their right-wing bonafides anew each day manifests in funnier ways. “Sushi’s not liberal food!” insists a chastened employee. And I thought it was we social justice warriors who submitted each other to purity tests.
Carlson may have filed the initial suit but it’s Kelly via whom we experience most of the story. Bombshell turns her briefly from a pundit into an investigative journalist–like I said, liberties are taken–by having her withhold her own story while she snoops around to find out how many others share her experiences and weighs whether to risk her own career by speaking out. It’s too contrived to be Spotlight, exactly, but this section does thrum along nicely to the beat of each falling domino.
Theron is good at playing Kelly’s pragmatism, which makes it all the more jarring when Roach makes corny appeals to her humanity. The idea that a look at her innocent young daughter sleeping in the backseat of the car would be her final motivation just doesn’t match up with the character we’ve seen to that point.
Pap like that is all the more incongruous when compared to Roach’s biggest strength, his pessimism. Often, movies like this feel designed to let us all feel good about ourselves by collectively acknowledging that we’ve recognized a bad thing as bad. Bombshell has no interest in allowing us self-gratification. By bookending his story with two trips to Cleveland, one for a Republican presidential debate in which Kelly questioned Donald Trump on his vicious misogyny and one for the Republican National Convention in which Trump was nominated anyway, Bombshell reminds us that, against Ailes, the forces of good may have won a battle but we lost the war. This is a movie designed not to stroke our moral egos but to make us feel shitty, angry and, most importantly, motivated to do something about it.