Film review: ‘BOMBSHELL’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Bombshell, which dramatises the events surrounding the 2016 sexual harassment suit against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, presents a potent, if occasionally unfocused, indictment of the misogyny underpinning much of society as well as a clever, witty and surprisingly energetic dissection of right-wing political media.

The film is set amid the chaotic fervour of the 2016 presidential race, where a storm begins to brew in that bastion of right-wing American political conservatism, Fox News. Presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), once a network star but now relegated to a veritable graveyard program, lodges a sexual harassment suit against her boss Roger Ailes. The suit becomes a catalyst for other women, including one of the networks’ best-known presenters Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and young aspiring presenter Kayla Pospisil (an invented character but apparently based on real people, played by Margot Robbie) as well as many others, to come forward about their experiences with Ailes.

The film exposes the agonising difficulties each woman faced in making the decision to speak up. All of them were potentially sacrificing the careers they desperately wanted and for which they had worked tirelessly. There was also the psychological Mount Everest of confronting a man who only answered to Rupert Murdoch and his sons, who had been a presidential kingmaker and who had the power to subjugate these women in the first place. Megyn Kelly also knew the disturbing price she would have to pay for confronting a powerful male figure following her questioning of Donald Trump during a presidential debate that saw her become the subject of a vile hate campaign.

‘Bombshell’ bristles with energy as it captures both the nervous fear each woman felt and the oddly thrilling sense of a paradigm shift as they took on a seemingly insurmountable foe. Director Jay Roach also gives what could have been a grim story flourishes of humour as he depicts the absurdity of the news environment in which they worked but he never allows the film to lurch into clumsy jokiness. As it focuses on the intersecting stories of three major characters, this film occasionally becomes a little cluttered but Roach and the scriptwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) for the most part maintain a clear narrative arc. Given the feverish, rabbit warren-like environment in which this film takes place, it must have been tempting for Randolph to employ frenetic Aaron Sorkin-style dialogue but thankfully he avoids this.

That the film works as well as it does is largely due to the terrific performances of the entire cast but particularly, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie. Theron gives Megyn Kelly an impressive mix of coolness and professionalism but also fracturing confidence as the vicious trolling and isolation at the network begin to impact her. In another wonderful performance, Margot Robbie deftly negotiates the line between sympathetically eager neophyte and disturbingly deluded right winger in her portrayal of the fictious Kayla, a woman who calls herself an ‘evangelical millennial’. The scenes of her realising that her rose-coloured view of Fox News and Ailes were a pathetic illusion are some of the most powerful in the film. As Gretchen Carlson, Kidman has a fierceness and intensity but her performance occasionally seems a little forced.

Playing Roger Ailes seems to be the plum role for middle-aged and older males with Russell Crowe having recently won the Golden Globe for portraying him in The Loudest Voice. I haven’t seen Crowe’s performance but it would have to be of the highest quality to top John Lithgow’s. Swathed very convincingly in make-up and extra kilos, Lithgow makes Ailes an intriguingly complex figure: maniacally success driven, often remarkably generous but also repugnant, pathetic and paranoid.

Some of the supporting characters such as Kate McKinnon’s female confidant for Robbie’s Kayla are, however, a little thinly sketched while Malcolm McDowell has little time to do anything memorable in his role as Rupert Murdoch.

A few qualms aside, Bombshell is a mostly enthralling account of an event that has had powerful repercussions throughout society and a film that rightfully honours the courage and conviction of women who stood up to institutionalised harassment.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Political drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jay Roach.

Release date: 16th Jan 2020.

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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