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First run Theater cinema

Bombshell is yet another of those ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas that Hollywood cranks out as soon as the dust from the real story has settled. It tells of how Fox News creator and CEO Roger Ailes was ousted from his lofty perch after multiple charges of sexual harassment from a plethora of his female employees. The film stars Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, one of Fox’s most popular newscasters; Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, co-anchor of the networks’ popular morning show Fox and Friends; and Margot Robbie as a composite character named Kayla Pospisil, who stands in for multiple associate producers, wannabe news readers, and ambitious, wide-eyed, low-level female staffers whom the powerful and paranoid TV news baron preyed upon.

Jay Roach corrals an all-star ensemble cast into a fairly cohesive, if predictable and uninspired, movie. Initially known for helming broad comedies like the Meet the Parents and Austin Powers pictures, Roach’s focus has turned to more serious subject matter in recent years, as he’s directed several political docudramas for HBO such as Recount (2008), Game Change (2012), and All the Way (2016). Each of these topical tales follow a bland formula: take a big, complex, sometimes multi-year story that dominated the 24-hour news cycle, boil it down to its essence, cast a gaggle of famous actors to play famous public figures with lots of make-up, and hammer home the key “what did we all learn from this” points from these major political events before enough time has passed to often draw those conclusions. (In his worst piece of work—the historical drama Trumbo (2015)—the outcomes and ramifications of the subject matter are far enough in the past that conclusions can and have been drawn, yet this doesn’t make the film any less shamelessly simplistic and toothless) 

Bombshell’s screenplay is by Charles Randolph, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script for The Big Short (2015) with its director Adam McKay. McKay is another filmmaker who, like Roach, started out making broad comedies but now seems devoted to showing viewers what went down in real life via highly fictionalized movies, though he spices it up with comedic techniques that help us dim American viewers understand big complicated concepts.

As I’m sure readers can tell by now, I don’t really like this kind of movies. But I will say that Bombshell is one of the better examples of the trend. Though ham-fistedly structured and full of too many characters that only seem to be there because people who go, “wait, where was _____ during all this?” Bombshell sports a first-rate cast doing excellent work. First and foremost is Theron who disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly and helps this movie earn a modicum of the prestige, earnestness, and sense of purpose it seems to believe it oozes.  Robbie is incredibly convincing as a chipper “evangelical millennial” and she renders the character’s disillusionment around her dream job heartbreakingly well. John Lithgow, in a rare villainous turn, plays Ailes as a kind of friendly Jabba the Hut. His performance is half in the excellent make-up, but he succeeds in helping us understand why so many people loved the loathsome Ailes (beyond the power he wielded and abused).

The picture features some terrific actors in supporting roles like Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, and Malcolm McDowell (as Rupert Murdoch). The only actor who doesn’t seem on solid footing here is Kidman. Of course, her character spends most of her time on shaky ground, but the awkwardness here comes from seeing Kidman playing the third banana in a trifecta of great actresses. In order for the film to fully work, Kidman’s Carlson should feel a bit more central to the plot than she does. Carlson often seems like she’s off in a different story from the other characters. And since Kidman doesn’t disappear in her role the way Theron does, an impersonation performance like this in a surface-details movie like this can’t help but suffer by comparison. 

Bombshell tells us nothing we don’t already know, even if we paid little attention to the story when it was in the news. In that sense, it’s not a bombshell at all, but just another one of these by the numbers, Cliff’s Notes reenactments of extremely recent events. Yet the performances are some of the best of the year, and thus the movie should not be overlooked. Theron and Robbie a both so good they are able to make the blunt aspects of the storytelling feel authentic and vital. Bombshell seems to be trying to be a film for all audiences  (those on the left and the right), which is perhaps foolish. After all, what Fox News watcher is going to enjoy seeing his favorite network’s dirty laundry aired? Well, perhaps a few women in that audience might. And there is enough substance and earned emotion here to possibly make some people who reject the #MeToo movement out of hand stop and think about why it is so necessary.

Twitter Capsule:
The story of the women who brought down Fox News impresario Roger Ailes follows the now-standard formula for Hollywood docudramas about recent political events, but the exceptional performances from Theron and Robbie elevate the material and drive its themes home with real power.

Directed by Jay Roach
Produced by Charlize Theron, Jay Roach, Charles Randolph, Robert Graf, Aaron L. Gilbert, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono, Michelle Graham, and Margaret Riley

Written by Charles Randolph

With: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Connie Britton, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Amy Landecker, Mark Moses, Nazanin Boniadi, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, Alanna Ubach, Andy Buckley, Brooke Smith, Bree Condon, D'Arcy Carden, Spencer Garrett, Allan Graf, London Fuller, Sedona Fuller, Kevin Dorff, Richard Kind, Michael Buie, Marc Evan Jackson, and Anne Ramsay

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Editing: Jon Poll
Music: Theodore Shapiro

Runtime: 109 min
Release Date: 20 December 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1