Solid Performances Barely Save ‘Bombshell’ (FILM REVIEW)

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The ousting of Roger Ailes as chairman and CEO of Fox News was one of the biggest shocks of the modern media landscape. Ailes guided the conservative news network from its humble beginnings into the most watched cable news channel and, directly or indirectly, is responsible for the tone of modern political and journalistic discourse. His fall was swift and sudden, owing to the accusations of sexual harassment by two of the network’s biggest stars, Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.

It soon become one of the more prominent falls from grace of the Me Too movement, which saw more and more women speaking out against the horrific abuses of powerful men. Ailes, along with Harvey Weinstein, became the faces of sexual harassment perpetrators and jump started the conversation in powerful ways. It was, of course, only a matter of time before those stories hit the big screen.

Bombshell, touted as the first film to grapple with the implications of the Me Too movement, tackles the culture of abuse and harassment fostered by Ailes at Fox News and features no fewer than four outstanding performances. Unfortunately, the toothless direction of Jay Roach makes a film which punches far softer than it could have and leads to a somewhat forgettable cinematic experience.

The film follows the initial fallout from Carlson’s (Nicole Kidman) accusations against Ailes (John Lithgow), set against the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential Election. Embroiled in innuendo is Kelly (Charlize Theron) who is forced to contend not just with the ire of the Man Who Would Be President but also his followers and her network’s audience, who’ve taken issue with her stance against then-candidate Trump. Along the way we meet the fictional Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) whose dreams of Fox stardom are shattered by her experiences with Ailes.

While Kidman, Theron, Robbie, and Lithgow each give brilliant, nuanced performances, too often does Bombshell pull its punches when it should be going for the throat. The script, from screenwriter Charles Randolph, who co-wrote the Oscar Award winning screenplay The Big Short, is full of the kind of research that’s made his previous work such a delight, but lacks in much of the sardonic wit that made his previous film so fun and engaging.

Roach and Randolph attempt to make Bombshell a salvo against the prominence of Fox News as a whole, digging into the controversy surrounding Kelly’s handling of the debates and her subsequent feud with Trump. The film works best, however, when it’s contending directly with sexual harassment and what that looks like. Robbie, who serves as our direct window into sexual harassment, does a profoundly affecting job at portraying the shame and powerlessness of sexual harassment and the film’s most effective moments stem from that.

While there’s no way to ignore the firestorm surrounding Carlson and Kelly, Pospisil, despite being a fictional representation, is far and away the most interesting and moving of Bombshell’s plots and let’s us really see how sexual harassment plays out in the real world. Still, there’s no denying the raw power of Kidman’s and Theron’s performances, who both were so engrossing that, at times, it was difficult to remember we weren’t watching the actual anchors themselves. Lithgow, too, is a fantastic villain, portraying all the menace and power with which Ailes came to be known.

It’s just too bad that the film surrounding these performances wasn’t as memorable. While these are stories that need to be told, when you come for the king you better make sure your hits land. By the end, it felt as though the film was holding back and trying not to rock any boats too terribly hard. The result is that Bombshell, while not exactly a dud, is nowhere near as explosive as it needed to be.

Bombshell is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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