“Bombshell,” the new film starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and a cast of thousands, is set at a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The T-Rex in the room in this story is Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the chairman and CEO of Fox News. Much of the action is set in 2016 but the attitudes on display are positively prehistoric.
Ailes died on May 18, 2017, aged 77, but when we first meet him, he reigns supreme. He helped elected presidents, walked the halls of power with confidence and, most importantly for the purposes of this story, created the conservative cable news juggernaut Fox News. Specializing in covering stories that, according to producer Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), “will scare your grandmother and piss off your grandfather,” Fox became Ailes’s mouthpiece to counter “liberal” CNN.
Ailes altered how Americans consumed the news, making stars out of Greta Van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and the two women at the heart of “Bombshell’s” story, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron). Kelly is one of the network’s biggest stars, an outspoken lawyer engaged in a war of words with then candidate Donald Trump. The feud was good for ratings, so despite his pro-Trump stance, Ailes allowed it to continue. Not as good for the ratings was Carlson, a former prime time anchor demoted to midafternoons following disagreements with her boss.
Eventually fired, Carlson levelled accusations of sexual misconduct against her former boss, alleging she had been fired for rebuffing Ailes’ advances. When the expected support from other women inside Fox who had been auditioned by Ailes with the words, “stand up and give me a twirl,” or “lift your skirt up higher so I can see your legs,” Carlson fears her allegations will fall on deaf ears.
On the insider Kelly weighs her options. Despite a “Support Roger” campaign from colleague Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) she bides her time before opening up about her own experiences.
The title “Bombshells” is a double entendre, referring to Ailes’ objectification of his on-air talent and to the accusations leveled against him, which sent ripples throughout the male dominated corporate world of news.
“Bombshell” echoes the story recently told in the mini-series “The Loudest Voice.” Both tell of a toxic workplace where one man ruled by intimidation, sexual harassment and micromanagement. “We have two, three and four donut days,” says Ailes’ executive assistant (Holland Taylor). “These aren’t donuts he eats. They’re donuts he throws.” His, “if you want to play with the big boys you have to lay with the big boys,” credo is dramatized in his interactions with Kayla Pospisil, a composite of several Fox employees, played by Margot Robbie. It was the days before #MeToo and the film does a good job of showing the apprehension some of the abused women feel about revealing their lurid treatment by Ailes.
At the film’s helm is Theron, with the aid of an incredible make up job, disappears into the role of Megyn. She pierces the icy demeanor of Kelly’s on-air persona to reveal a heroine torn between loyalty to a man she knows has done terrible things and doing the right thing. It’s tremendous work that humanizes a character often portrayed in the real-life press as a divisive figure.
“Bombshell” is a torn-from-the-headlines story about the people behind the headlines that serves as a reminder of the importance of the #MeToo movement in shining a light on the kind of inappropriate behavior that placed women in peril in the workplace. Good performances, aided by makeup and prosthetics bring the story to vivid life.