Ah, Charlize Theron… South Africa’s “darling”, who became one of Hollywood’s most famous faces and respected actors. As legend has it, she won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster in an unrecognisable role, following it up with a nomination as a miner struggling in a toxic work environment in North Country. A first class act, it’s surprising that she hasn’t managed to garner another nomination or golden statuette for fantastic turns as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and Marlo in Tully. Based on the results it seems as though the Academy only ever seems to acknowledge Theron when she’s either unrecognisable or fighting sexual harassment. Perhaps this is how Bombshell came about with the producer-actress playing Megyn Kelly, where she’s unrecognisable and fighting sexual harassment. The Academy had to sit up and take notice.
Bombshell follows a group of women who take on the toxic environment at Fox News, the head of the snake being Roger Ailes. Movie titles have been known to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Just think of the clapperboard, script and various insignia it dons before the film marches into cinemas. The film’s working title was Fair and Balanced, which was probably the attitude and culture the filmmakers wanted to engender on set. While Bombshell is a clever title and speaks to the blonde news presenters and impending fall out, ironically the film is not quite explosive enough and fails to fully deploy its payload.
The Fox News shake up made headlines and signaled a much-needed shake up at the network where powerful and successful head, Roger Ailes, set the tone with his sleazy and toxic “loyalty” programme. Coming at a time when Trump was campaigning for President of the United States, Bombshell unpacks Kelly’s disapproval of and public spat with Donald Trump. Being at the beck and call of Fox News, one of several opinion news services blamed on Dick Cheney in Vice, she had to back down and seek a truce with the Republican candidate the network was getting behind. While Bombshell tackles the network’s flagrant sexual harassment and need for their anchors to wear shorter skirts and show more leg to keep the audience tuned in, it arrives on the back of a much bigger theme playing out in Hollywood with bigwigs like Harvey Weinstein.
Bombshell only really scratches at the surface of the characters and the underlying societal toxicity, struggling to go deep, leaning on the far-reaching political power of the true story. Perhaps this was an intentional ploy, refusing to alienate the audiences they were attempting to reach as a message movie. Unfortunately, this makes the screenplay bland and too tame to ignite a generation. Directed by Jay Roach, whose Trumbo biopic made waves… he has a knack for directing comedy and will always be remembered for Mike Myers spy spoof, Austin Powers. Bombshell tries to adopt an edgy and irreverent docudrama feel by breaking the fourth wall and including actual news snippets, some doctored to include actors. While this ambitious satirical tone is never fully realised, it remains engaging thanks to its stellar cast and strong performances.
Having a heavy-hitting trio like Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie at the helm is refreshing. For starters, being a female-led film with three accomplished big name actors sharing the screen, you know you’re in for some well-acted drama. Moreover, Hollywood has veered away from the blonde Barbie bombshell type, which has become an outmoded cliche and not just because Cameron Diaz quit Tinseltown. They don’t disappoint with Theron using make up to offset her famous face and deepening her voice to embody her character in a steadfast and controlled performance as Megyn Kelly. While typically strong, she’s somewhat diluted by her facial prosthetic, slight vocal inconsistencies and the superficial handling of the screenplay.
Then the experienced and level-headed Kidman takes on the lynch pin that is Gretchen Carlson, the presenter who started the movement against Ailes with a carefully calibrated legal battle. Rounding up the Bombshell trio is Robbie, who arguably deals the best performance as the ambitious and impressionable Kayla Pospisil. Last but not least, an unflinching John Lithgow echoes his distaste for Trump and turn in Beatriz for Dinner by playing another powerful mogul in Roger Ailes.
Coasting on the strength of its collective of performances, Bombshell isn’t quite as explosive or devastating as you’d hope, taking a safe route through this quagmire of hypocrisy and misogyny. It’s entertaining to get a behind-the-scenes dramatisation of public relations muscle, big business and backroom legal proceedings, which has many parallels with present day Hollywood, yet the intellectual engagement and power of the message is diluted by its mission to be Fair and Balanced. This objective may be good for an unbiased fly-on-the-wall documentary feature, but inevitably leads to vanilla when it comes to entertainment.
The bottom line: Compelling