When Charlize Theron first appeared as the former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, sitting in full prime-time makeup behind a news desk, it took me a moment to sort through the layers of reality and artifice. Was that Kelly herself, pert-nosed and flaxen-haired, differentiable from the general pack of symmetrical blond Fox commentatrixes mainly by her husky voice? Was Theron wearing facial prosthetics, or had her image been digitally altered by one of those new deepfake filters that can make Robert De Niro look 20 years younger and cause the ghost of Tom Cruise to appear on Bill Hader’s features when and only when the comedian imitates the action star?
Later, when John Lithgow showed up as Roger Ailes, a similar set of questions arose. Were those jowls the result of artfully applied silicone or green-screen wizardry? How much weight, if any, did Lithgow put on for the part? (Post-screening research revealed that makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who won an Oscar for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for The Darkest Hour, was responsible for Bombshell’s many eerie physical transformations.)
I’m sure the director, Jay Roach, would prefer that the audience spend less time in these metafictional thickets and engage directly with the film’s story, which chronicles Kelly’s last days at the network in the larger context of the unfolding sexual harassment scandal at Fox. But that’s the risk you run when you make a movie in a subgenre I’ve come to think of as Bad Moments From Recent History, Recreated in Uncanny Detail. Two notable early examples of the form were HBO movies with then–A-list movie stars: 2008’s Recount with Kevin Spacey as a key Democratic operative in the Bush v. Gore election, and 2012’s Game Change with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin—both of them directed by Jay Roach. Last year, Adam McKay’s Vice gave us a more playful, if ultimately unsatisfying, variant on the Recent Bad Moments template. Christian Bale’s bizarrely complete physical transformation into Dick Cheney took the stunt-casting angle to the extreme, while the fractured, gag-laden script abandoned all pretense of hyperrealism and committed fully to absurdity.
McKay’s Oscar-winning script for The Big Short, his first foray into ripped-from-the-headlines political satire, was co-written with Charles Randolph, who also wrote Bombshell. So this movie comes with authorial bona fides to burn and a cast stacked with comic and dramatic talent. In addition to Theron as Kelly and Lithgow as Ailes, there’s Nicole Kidman as Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie as an associate producer at the network, a fictional character who’s a composite of various former Fox employees. Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Richard Kind, Mark Duplass, and Rob Delaney all appear in supporting roles. But Bombshell’s long pedigree also ensures that a lot about it feels familiar: the live tapings and production meetings shot with jiggly hand-held camera to instill a sense of tension and danger. The banks of TV screens whose overlapping talking heads fill in narrative gaps, like a Greek chorus with chyrons. There’s a grammar specific to this kind of movie that’s now common enough to have become all but invisible. That sense of overfamiliarity doesn’t entirely erase the impact of the distressing real-life events Bombshell recounts, but it can make the emotions they stir up easier to process. Which, for a movie about a workplace with a decadeslong history of rampant systemic abuse, isn’t always a good thing.
And fine, we might as well get it out of the way upfront: I can think of more important whistleblower stories to hear about in detail (even more detail than we already got from this year’s Roger Ailes miniseries, The Loudest Voice) than Megyn Kelly’s. A person with a platform that size who uses her on-air time to argue vehemently that Santa Claus is white, as Kelly did with an ex-colleague of mine (a moment the movie briefly revisits), just isn’t that exciting to root for. No one deserves to be harassed at work, and the fact these women banded together to bring down an enormously powerful and malignant man is admirable. That doesn’t mean I want to spend two hours gazing at Megyn’s seemingly poreless face as she wrestles with whether and how to tell her truth, while continuing to play a highly public part in a media ecosystem based on lies.
By 2016, the year the Fox harassment scandal gained momentum (more than a year in advance of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo), the effect of that steady stream of disinformation was being felt in the presidential election. The bad juju of that awful summer hangs heavy over the world of Bombshell, which incorporates real news clips of, say, Trump braying about “blood coming out of her wherever” after Kelly asks him tough questions at a presidential debate. (Aren’t you glad we’re still talking about this so many years later?) It was in the summer of 2016 that Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox & Friends anchor who had already been demoted after refusing to submit to Ailes’ sexual demands, was fired amid her complaints about the network’s atmosphere of sexism on-air and off-. Carlson sued Ailes for harassment in early July, and roughly two weeks later, after a series of stories came out about settlements the network had made with women going back decades, Kelly came forward with her own story. Bombshell is mainly concerned with what happened in Kelly’s and Carlson’s lives during those two weeks—the nice vacations ruined by paparazzi (again … trying to care?), the urgent summoning of lawyers, the manic newsroom walk-and-talks.
But there are too-seldom-visited side plots about far more interesting characters. Robbie’s fictional Kayla, a self-proclaimed “evangelical millennial,” is not an easily classifiable political type but a believably odd bird. Though she seems to pride herself on being to the right of most of her network colleagues (she leaves Carlson’s show to work on Bill O’Reilly’s, to Carlson’s openly expressed disgust), she’s also a closeted lesbian, or maybe a bisexual struggling with her attraction to women. Luckily for us, Kayla doesn’t struggle too hard against falling into bed with the delightful Jess (McKinnon), a fellow producer who shares her cubicle. Jess also keeps her sexual orientation on the down-low at work, but her biggest secret is her support for the Democratic nominee. The scene where she and Kayla hook up at her place beneath a poster of Hillary Clinton, then engage in giggly pillow talk about their messed-up workplace, is as full of spontaneous energy and pleasure as this often-programmatic movie gets.
Robbie also features in the movie’s toughest scene, the moment where we see Ailes not just angling to get one of the network’s many attractive young women alone in his office but doing what he does once they’re there. Under the guise of evaluating Kayla for an on-air spot, he asks her to stand up and twirl for him, then hike her skirt higher and higher while he watches. Robbie’s face as she tries to maintain a professional smile through all this is a painful wonder to watch. For Theron’s and Kidman’s characters, who occupy higher spots on the Fox totem pole, that kind of humiliation is further in the past, but they, too, keenly convey the misery of being constantly policed by one’s boss for physical appeal and proper feminine deference. (If their performances are in the end less memorable than Robbie’s, it’s only because flawlessly evoking the voice and manner of a famous real person is a less engaging task for an actor than creating someone entirely new.) Watching these three join forces with other women at the network to engineer Ailes’ eventual firing brings a grim sense of satisfaction, but when you remember that Kelly herself was fired from NBC last year for defending blackface on air, it gets a bit harder to pump your fist in solidarity. Whatever beliefs they may hold about other people’s humanity, I’m glad these women finally received justice from the network that wronged them. I’m just not sure that translates into wanting to spend two hours in their company.