“Someone has to speak up. Someone has to get mad!’” TV anchor Gretchen Carlson’s 2016 sexual harassment suit against all-powerful Fox News supremo Roger Ailes explodes like a megaton bomb in Jay Roach’s juicy, angry, and darkly comic take on the real-life battle between Fox’s screen queens and the king of cable news.
The first big MeToo movie, it tracks the struggle to end Ailes’ 20-year reign as a sexual predator, with John Lithgow’s wily TV-titan routinely demanding female “loyalty” in return for on-screen advancement. A pacy, glossy, star-packed drama about the high cost of doing the right thing, it swerves the preachy, women-as-victims lecture mode. Instead, it dunks you head-first into Manhattan’s crazily cut-throat and uber-Republican Fox News fortress, the most-watched cable network in America. Charlize Theron’s uncanny, authoritative Megyn Kelly (Fox’s famous queen bee) whisks us on a playful, Vice-style, audience-addressing tour of Ailes’ kingdom, where his rule (short skirts, alarmist news stories, creepy banter) is law.
As Donald Trump slams Kelly with crass insults and relentless press harassment for challenging him in the Republican debate, and Ailes exploits it for ratings, Roach’s cleverly doctored archive news footage and spiky office clashes turns it deftly into grabby, fast-moving farce. Further down the food-chain, Margot Robbie’s brazenly ambitious researcher Kayla Pospisil (a composite character drawn from Fox employees) angles for an onscreen job, horrified that Ailes wants to eyeball more than her CV.
Demoted to the afternoon show, Niclole Kidman’s sweetly steely Carlson, raging after a career deflecting Ailes’ slimy advances, is ready to start a war no one thinks she can win. Though the film is adroitly revving up your anger on the trio’s behalf, Roach (comedy veteran of the Meet The Parents and Austin Powers series) also sniffs out the gallows humour and absurdity of Fox’s outrage-and-eye-candy news output.
A hilarious production line of identical mini-dresses, Spanx, and high heels create Fox’s ‘Anchor Barbies’, along with the bullying ‘bantz’ that Carlson endures onscreen, showing off the network’s toxic sexism. It’s nicely underlined by scripter Charles Randolph’s zingy political satire, using his Oscar-winning The Big Short-style quick-fire dialogue to unpack Fox’s sly editorial angle: “What would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather?”
Generating sympathy for rich, pushy, noisily right-wing TV stars ain’t easy. Yet Roach and Randolph keep things surprisingly relatable, smartly using rookie Pospisil’s plight to elicit viewer empathy. Seeing Lithgow’s fatherly Ailes manoeuvre her from flirtation to humiliation within his firmly locked office, you feel rinsed in her shame and shock. Bombshell conveys expertly how emotionally and professionally terrifying whistleblowing is, as Kelly starts investigating a stream of passed-over and traumatised Fox women whose harassment complaints were career suicide.
What keeps the drama taut are the excellent central performances, some sure to shake up the Oscar race. Nicole Kidman finds a merciless scrapper under Carlson’s elegance, while Margot Robbie’s Pospisil unpeels movingly from fervent Fox fan to survival-seeker. Towering over them all is Theron, showing off the Streep-ish chameleon skills she honed in Monster and Mad Max: Fury Road. Darkest Hour whiz Kazu Hiru’s prosthetics work is insanely good, making Theron almost unrecognisable in Kelly’s distinctive profile. But the gravitas, the irritated uncertainty of a woman desperate not to be a victim, are all Theron’s own work. Her intriguing performance is what will bind rest-of-the-world viewers, or anyone who isn’t a US news junkie, into this most American of stories.
Still, for all the film’s skill, there are some stumbles. The three parallel storylines mean it doesn’t have the collaborative all-for-one revenge thrills of Made In Dagenham or Nine To Five. Tonal shifts from satire to investigative-thriller mode grind their gears in places, and the film’s unifying theme of female oppression has to work overtime. What really ties the women together is Ailes – mentoring, hectoring, preying mercilessly on them. John Lithgow is masterly here, spiffy fat-suit prosthetics aiding the complex, compulsive personality his Ailes parades. Not the all-out monster of Showtime’s TV series ‘The Loudest Voice In The Room’, but a broadcasting genius, both generous and cruelly predatory.
Thankfully, the women get to be equally complicated. Like other recent female-driven films (The Favourite, Hustlers) Bombshell’s blondes are engagingly flawed – morally compromised, professionally ruthless, full of divided loyalties. Roach and Randolph’s biggest achievement here is in getting under their skin, to show how sexual harassment creates a workplace that crackles with danger and uncertainty for women. Like their Network (1976) predecessor, they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.