Bombshell movie review: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie's film feels like rush job in time for Oscars

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 04, 2020 09:47:11 IST


Language: English

In a disturbing scene midway through Bombshell, Kayla, a young network producer played by Margot Robbie, gets a private audience with former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) to discuss her career.

 Bombshell movie review: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbies film feels like rush job in time for Oscars

Charlize Theron and John Lithgow in a still from Bombshell

"I think I'd be freaking phenomenal on your network," she tells him. Aware of his power to make or break her career, he makes a repugnant order seem like a reasonable request: "Why don’t you stand up and give me a twirl?" She is confused but she does. He then asks her to pull up her dress a little. Her confusion turns into clear discomfort but she does. He continues, under heavy breaths, to command her to pull it up higher and higher. The camera lingers on her face as she tries to hold back her tears, before it cuts to a close-up of her exposed underwear.

It is a powerful scene shot in an exploitative manner. Instead of letting the scene play out through the perspective of the harassed woman, director Jay Roach gives us the Peeping Tom gaze of the harasser, turning the audience into unwitting participants of vicarious voyeurism. Therein lies the problem with Bombshell, as this is not Ailes' story but of the women who brought him down.

A still from Bombshell

A still from Bombshell

HBO's The Loudest Voice already told us the story of how Ailes turned Fox News into a propaganda machine, peddling panic and paranoia to Americans with screaming matches, segregationist rhetoric, and short skirts. This is the story of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), a former Fox News anchor whose contract was terminated after she refused Ailes' sexual advances, and how her lawsuit against him set off a series of allegations from other women.

This is the story of her fellow Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who initially struggles to speak out worried it may jeopardise her career but eventually launches her own lawsuit. This is also the story of Kayla, a composite character based on a collection of testimonials from various women who made similar accusations of sexual misconduct.

Nicole Kidman in a still from Bombshell

Nicole Kidman in a still from Bombshell

Theron easily stands out among this peroxide blonde trio, even if it often feels like she is giving us an imitation, not interpretation, of Kelly. Kidman's tormented face and silence is a triumph of subtlety, in stark contrast to her wig. With his fat suit and facial prosthetics, Lithgow lives up to Ailes' "Jabba the Hut" nickname but does not give it a cartoonish treatment. He captures the sleaze, hubris, and insecurities of a man who cannot begin to understand the overbearing and oppressive nature of his toxic behaviour.

Robbie's Kayla is a wide-eyed conservative Christian ("evangelical millennial") whose innocence and ideology is shattered by the predatory Ailes. She is also a closeted lesbian who jumps into bed with a fellow producer Jess (Kate McKinnon), who also happens to be a closeted lesbian and Hillary Clinton supporter working at — of all places — Fox News.

Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon in a still from Bombshell

Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon in a still from Bombshell

These contrived elements give the feeling the film cares less about capturing real-life characters and their struggles but more about completing some checklist for the awards season. This is reflected even in the dialogue, which ranges from the snappy expository kind (like Fox's editorial policy is described as "Frighten and titillate" or "What would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather?") to the plain dopey ("I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space"), but it is unlikely these words were ever uttered by real people in real life.

Instead, Charles Randolph's script integrates archival footage to give the story a stronger sense of credibility, like he did with The Big Short. He also brings back the pop-up graphics to give viewers context, and the fourth-wall-breaking gimmick as Theron not only plays a news presenter, but a presenter of the film itself. However, Jay Roach, unlike Adam McKay, lacks the conviction in his treatment of the subject matter.

Charzlie Theron in a still from Bombshell

Charzlie Theron in a still from Bombshell

His apolitical approach lets off the hook anchors like Carlson and Kelly, who willingly propagated blatantly racist agenda during their time at Fox News. Of course, you don't have to share the same political ideology to empathise with these women who have suffered a devastating betrayal. But the dramatic tidiness of the film results in a way too cautious approach in addressing how a work environment and an agenda that vindicates people like Trump play a part in this cycle of systemic abuse.

Bombshell takes a symmetrical and underlined approach when it should raise a stink. It takes a sensationalist approach in situations which demand subtlety. Thus, it becomes part of the problem, rather than the solution. Perhaps if it was written and directed by a woman, it would have felt less like a Photoshopped examination of reality.

Of course, the film does have its heart in the right place (how could it not), exploring how one man abused his position of power to prey on women, who feared the punishment and peer judgement of reporting said abuse. But it is not just one man, it is a culture of institutionalised sexism. If the film and #MeToo teach us anything, it will take the strength and solace of the collective sisterhood to take that down.

Rating: **1/2

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2020 10:33:45 IST