If Ailes’ newscasting couch could talk.
In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) of Fox News is on her way out but not without a fight. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) holds the top spot but can see what’s happening with “the Gretchen situation” and how others look to her for leadership. Newcomer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) is desperate for an opportunity — despite warnings from co-worker and closeted progressive Jess (Kate McKinnon). At some point, all three women had one thing in common: receiving the sordid blessing of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow)… and they were far from alone.
Director Jay Roach takes on the “fair and balanced” outlet’s ousted chief antagonist but does so through the same lens as Mr. Ailes himself: showcasing beautiful women with the intent to keep viewers helplessly glued to the screen whenever topical outrage is lacking. Make no mistake; no one could keep such a reputation hidden nor fed without help, and victim silence was as essential as enabling a predator. While it’s an amusing idea to craft an exploitative environment to call attention to an exploitative environment, is irony really the most effective way to get the point across to a target audience when already preaching to the choir?
While starting out with and ending on a bit of winking satire, the film makes a promise it actually doesn’t keep, unlike Adam McKay’s Vice last year that revelled in it without apology. The central story of Theron’s Kelly is the most compelling yet also the least satisfying, and without that same satire in the middle, the tone feels like two different films that don’t quite mesh together. While not always successful at it himself, director Taika Waititi managed to strike this balance with Jojo Rabbit. With keeping silent to keep your spoils rather than sound the alarm to protect others as a central theme to Bombshell, however, the ripped-from-the-headlines motif is timely but not as compelling as it wants to be.
Lithgow’s dead-on Ailes is presented as nothing short of a monster convinced of his own hype. His viewpoint isn’t without merit — if it titillates him, it should titillate the viewers — yet the problem besides the moral implication is unlawful sexual harassment, suggesting his subjects prove their loyalty of their own volition and using their own imagination until he’s “satisfied.” This goes a ways toward answering the central question: why would smart women do and hide something this stupid? Here is where the film treads too lightly and feels restrained; while the liberties taken may have stuck to the facts, the soft-pedaled opportunity to drive the point home shortchanges the production.
Had Roach decided to take the satire as far as McKay did — fake Shakespeare and all — or left it out altogether, either might have elevated good material up to something more worthy of the cast assembled and presented it more meaningfully. It’s no spoiler what happened in real life or what little effect it actually had in the end, but that revelation shouldn’t have informed the final cut as well.
Bombshell is rated R for sexual material and language throughout, and other icky details.
Three skull recommendation out of four.
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