A movie whose heroines are Fox News women may not sound rewarding. But “Bombshell” hits more than misses as it tells the story of how female underlings, sexually harassed by Roger Ailes, broke their silence and brought down the powerful CEO.
This entertaining dramedy film is directed by Jay Roach (“Trumbo,” “Meet the Parents”) from a screenplay by Charles Randolph, who wrote, with Adam McKay, “The Big Short.” Like that McKay-directed film, “Bombshell” mixes fact and fiction and playfully depicts topical subjects.
Set in 2016, it focuses on three Fox News workers.
Star correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) gives a newsroom tour and notes that Fox News chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, in monstrous mode) operates with an iron-fist. “Roger doesn’t tell us what to say on the air,” Kelly states. “He doesn’t have to.”
Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, underused), the former “Fox and Friends” host, has been fired by Ailes. She announces she’s suing him for sexual harassment.
Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a young producer from a religious family, is a fictitious character who represents women Ailes harassed.
Ailes rules from an upstairs lair, where he lures female employees under the pretense of discussing their career.
The plot pinballs from one scenario to another. Kelly sparks a Twitter rant from Donald Trump after asking him, during a presidential debate, about misogynist comments he’s made. Carlson strategizes with her lawyers.
A crew member who supplied a photo of the very much alive Don Henley for an obit item on deceased Eagles musician Glenn Frey apologizes, Fox News style: “Sorry, I don’t know secular music.”
Carlson’s prospects brighten when additional women, including Kelly, come forward with accounts Ailes sexually harassing them. Owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) fires Ailes. (Ailes died in 2017.)
The film isn’t a character study. It doesn’t explore what caused Kelly to end her silence about Ailes. At times, the filmmakers unsuccessfully try to enhance the heroism of their flawed protagonists.
Minor characters, from Susan Estrich (Allison Janney) to Rudy Giuliani (Richard King), are so numerous, they clutter the story.
Still, the film doesn’t ignore its protagonists’ problematic aspects. These women, it makes clear, work for an organization that produces right-wing propaganda and presents it as truth. They have stayed mum about Ailes’ horrid behavior to further their careers. Kelly has remarked, on the air, that Jesus and Santa are white.
Theron wisely doesn’t soften Kelly. In addition to looking and sounding like the real Kelly, her version of the newswoman displays crucial emotional texture.
Robbie supplies the other memorable performance. The scene in which Ailes, testing her loyalty, instructs Kayla to pull up her dress — “higher… higher” — Robbie, through facial expressions, makes devastating.
Robbie’s Kayla also shines in romantic scenes with cubicle mate Jess (a wonderful Kate McKinnon), a closeted lesbian and Democrat working at Fox News.
The film also triumphs as a close-up look at a harasser in action and as a depiction of how women can stop harassment by speaking out and supporting one another.
Technological highlights include the insertion of images of Theron’s Kelly into actual news footage.
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow
Written by: Charles Randolph
Directed by: Jay Roach
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes