The first time we see Charlize Theron as news anchor/television personality Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” the suspension of disbelief is instant and complete.
It’s not just the wardrobe and the makeup; as someone who is acquainted with Kelly and of course has seen her on television for many years, I was blown away by Theron’s ability to capture the essence of Kelly without delving into sketch-comedy impersonation.
When Theron as Kelly takes us on a tour of the Fox News Channel’s headquarters and studios on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and goes on to explain other mainstays of conservative news such as the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal are located in the same skyscraper, Jay Roach’s fictionalization of the sexual harassment scandals at Fox News has all the makings of a sharp, satirical takedown in the vein of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” and “Vice.”
From time to time “Bombshell” follows through on that potential, as when we get brief glimpses of actors portraying familiar Fox News personalities such as Geraldo Rivera and Sean Hannity. (The guy playing Rivera looks like he bought a Geraldo Rivera costume at a Halloween store; the actor portraying Hannity is grayer and pudgier than Hannity looks onscreen, which will surely drive Hannity nuts even though he’ll never admit it.)
However, for the most part “Bombshell” follows a traditional, linear path in telling the stories of Kelly, anchor/host Gretchen Carlson and a fictional composite character — an ambitious producer played by Margot Robbie, who is mortified and sickened by the grubby, creepy advances of Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), but succumbs in the hopes it will advance her career.
The sexual harassment scandals that led to the ouster of the late Roger Ailes (and his deputy Bill Shine) as well as prime-time cable news behemoth Bill O’Reilly have been well-chronicled, in stories from New York and Time magazine, in books such as “The Loudest Voice in the Room” by Gabriel Sherman, and in “The Loudest Voice,” the Showtime limited series based on that book and starring Russell Crowe in a ferociously strong performance as the mercurial, brilliant and monstrously manipulative Ailes.
“Bombshell” doesn’t shed much in the way of new light on the story, but it benefits from solid if unspectacular direction by Roach (best known for comedies such as the Austin Powers movies and “Meet the Parents”); a crisp but occasionally melodramatic screenplay from Charles Randolph; the remarkably spot-on production design, especially when it comes to re-creating the look and the atmosphere of the Fox News Channel offices and studios, and excellent performances by Theron, Kidman and Robbie.
As for Lithgow, he doesn’t quite match the thundering bombast and nauseating predator persona created by Crowe in the Showtime series, but he’s a brilliant actor who convincingly conveys Ailes’ four-star-general command of the powerful news channel he created, and his appalling sense of entitlement as he treats female anchors and producers like chattel. (“Give us a spin,” Lithgow as Ailes is fond of saying to the usually blonde, always skirt-clad women visiting his office.)
Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is a former Miss America who has worked hard to carve out a successful television career, moving through the local ranks and up the ladder at Fox News Channel. But as Carlson begins to assert herself and advocates for more meaningful programming, e.g., a show in which she wears no makeup as a statement against objectification, she falls out of favor with Ailes and is fired.
Carlson files a lawsuit claiming she was let go because she refused Ailes’ sexual advances. She’s stunned by the initial lack of support from her female co-workers. (Even as the scandal escalates, Bree Condon as Kimberly Guilfoyle — onetime Fox News personality and now Donald Trump Jr.’s romantic partner — runs around the newsroom wearing a “Team Roger” T-shirt, pleading with her peers to wear one as well.)
Meanwhile, Theron’s Megyn Kelly, a onetime Chicago-based attorney turned rising superstar at Fox News, finds herself becoming news after she asks a perfectly legitimate question of Donald Trump at a presidential debate, and he responds by attacking her personally. Kelly eventually goes public with claims Ailes made unwanted sexual advances toward her at the beginning of her career — and the end is in sight for Roger Ailes.
Robbie does fine work with a relatively thinly sketched character: one Kayla Pospisil, a young and naïve producer who’d like to make the transition to on-camera work, and seizes upon the opportunity to gain access to her boss’ boss’ boss (that would be Ailes) through the open secret, back-entrance door to Ailes’ office (away from the security cameras). Kayla also has a fling with Kate McKinnon’s Jess, a savvy, senior producer, a closeted lesbian who tells Kayla she would never come out because it would be career suicide at Fox News.
Mark Duplass is his typical natural and authentic presence as Kelly’s supportive husband, Doug Brunt, while Connie Britton shines as Ailes’ wife Beth, who defends him to the bitter end. “Bombshell” is one of the best-cast movies of the year.
While there’s a whole lot of fiction in this based-on-real-events tale, the essence of truth rings through.