In its portrayal of former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’ 2016 sexual harassment scandal, director Jay Roach’s Bombshell tries to balance two very different tones. On one hand, the film is a serious examination of how cultures of sexism prop up abusive men in powerful positions, and how those cultures can become very difficult to dismantle. On the other, it acknowledges that any attempt at bringing the public figures of Fox News to life, regardless of realism, will trigger kneejerk laughter from the portion of the audience more used to watching SNL than Fox & Friends. This is a very difficult line to walk, and screenwriter Charles Randolph, who shares an Academy Award with Adam McKay for penning The Big Short, had the task of crafting a blueprint for the rest of the filmmaking to follow. It all starts with the script, but everything needed to be sharp for Bombshell to succeed, because the difficulty of the juggling act makes the audience hypersensitive to every drop of the ball.
The cast certainly brought their A-game. Of all the aspects of this film, the performances will surely receive the lion’s share of the press, and deservedly so. Charlize Theron’s transformation into news anchor Megyn Kelly is mesmerizing and deserving of the Academy’s attention, instantly snatching the audience’s focus each time she comes on screen. Margot Robbie, playing the fictionalized composite character Kayla, is asked to cross between the two tones more than most, and does so admirably. By far the most compelling for my money, though, is John Lithgow as Roger Ailes himself. He represents Bombshell’s most palpable evil, but Lithgow refuses to play him so one-dimensionally, and his eyes reveal a complex interiority in even his most despicable moments. His performance makes it impossible to forget that Ailes would tell this story differently, which makes it so much more powerful that the camera denies him the narrative control he cultivated for much of his life.
Roach’s direction, too, is one of the film’s noticeable strengths. There are stylistic echoes of The Big Short from time to time, particularly the fourth wall breaks and dynamic approach to flashback, but instead of being used to add flash to a technical subject matter, these stylistic features provide a necessary counterbalance to the film’s serious side. Just as you become accustomed to things moving quickly, Roach starts throwing in long, unflinching moments of intense discomfort that you suddenly find yourself trapped in, mirroring the experience of having a boss cross a line in the workplace. The encounter between Kayla and Ailes that anchors the film’s trailer is the most defining of these moments and, I believe, particularly important for men — good filmmaking can be powerfully empathic, and sharing Kayla’s profound discomfort could help foster understanding in a time when the chasm separating male and female experiences has never been more apparent.
Where Bombshell falters is, unfortunately, its writing, which even the greatest efforts from Roach and his cast could not completely overcome. While it had phenomenal potential, the risky combination of tones never quite coalesces, and it hampers the exploration of systemic workplace harassment that should’ve been a thematic goldmine. It becomes clear as the film progresses that the political (not partisan) nature of Fox News sustained its toxic culture, with everyone so focused on their own advancement that they learned to embrace the suffering of others, until enough women finally recognized that some things are bigger than politics, bigger than power. But because the film itself never fully makes this transition, it won’t resonate quite the way it should.