Bombshell, the new film about the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News under Roger Ailes, belongs to a cinema lineage that includes the likes of The Big Short and VICE. These films are gimmicky dashes through very recent history, jam-packed with info and Oscar-worthy performances.
Screenwriter Charles Randolph, who penned the script for both The Big Short and Bombshell, likes to break the fourth wall a lot. It's kind of his pet literary device. In the former film, explanatory interludes — Margot Robbie talking about the subprime lending crisis while sipping champagne in a bubble bath, for example — were ostensibly to hold the audience's attention given the dry subject matter.
In Bombshell, the breaking of the fourth wall feels more natural. Transformed astonishingly into erstwhile Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, Charlize Theron gives a guided tour of the studios in an opening monologue. And it doesn't feel like a gimmick at all. That is to say: Formally presenting scripted material to help an audience understand an urgent or complicated topic is what news anchors do.
Theron is joined in the Fox trenches by Nicole Kidman, playing ousted "Fox and Friends" host Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie, playing a composite character based on Roger Ailes' many young victims. Though they aren't friends or even acquaintances at the office, they band together in a class-action lawsuit that results in Ailes' dismissal.
The film begins at the 2016 RNC in Cleveland — local moviegoers will no doubt delight in both scenes filmed in the bowels of what was then the Quicken Loans Arena — with the media tornado that engulfed Kelly after Trump uttered his "she had blood coming out of her eyes, out of her wherever," jab. Kelly's frustration with Ailes and Fox in the wake of Trump's brazen sexism sets the stage for her personal conundrum about coming forward later.
In addition to effectively portraying how Ailes (a fat-suited John Lithgow) went down at Fox, the film shows just how perilous and toxic a workplace culture can become when a powerful man is threatened. The tone oscillates between zany SNL-ish caricature and moments of tense and earnest drama. In one of the film's best (and worst) scenes, Ailes interviews young Kayla (Robbie) alone in his office. She wants to be on the air, she tells Ailes, and so he instructs her to show him her legs. He makes her lift her skirt higher, and higher, and higher. It's a degrading moment that Robbie plays perfectly.
While Robbie's fictitious Kayla is over-the-top at first — she's a heartland religious nut whose family members are such Fox diehards that the logo has been permanently burned into their TV screens — it's her story of abuse that plays out in the film's present tense. She befriends a closeted lesbian producer (Kate McKinnon) and wants to confide in her, but can't. Watching them navigate the boundaries of their friendship was my favorite of the film's several B-storylines.
Director Jay Roach got his start in comedies (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents), and he's able to make this weighty subject matter light and enjoyable enough. But this film is nothing without its three powerful leads.
Bombshell opens nationwide today (Dec. 20).