“Bombshell” is a muddled, soapy mess that doesn’t do Fox News nor #MeToo any favors

John Lithgow's tormented Roger Ailes might be the best performance in this celebrity-loaded spectacle

Published December 13, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

Charlize Theron as 'Megyn Kelly' and John Lithgow as 'Roger Ailes' in BOMBSHELL. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP)
Charlize Theron as 'Megyn Kelly' and John Lithgow as 'Roger Ailes' in BOMBSHELL. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP)

“Bombshell” wants to be an urgent present-tense docudrama about events that happened the day before yesterday, in historical terms, but have largely been forgotten and no longer seem to matter amid the all-out information blitz of the Trump era. In telling the story of the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in 2016, at exactly the moment Donald Trump was accepting the Republican presidential election, director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph no doubt believe they’re making a point about media and power and women and our changing understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality.

Or maybe they don’t and, more defensibly, the point of “Bombshell” is just to deliver a dishy, delicious, “All About Eve”-style spectacle featuring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman playing a pair of real-life beautiful women who are approximately as famous as they are — former Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, respectively, whose accusations against Ailes ended his lascivious reign of terror. Except that “Bombshell” isn’t great at being soapy entertainment either, since this actually is a story about moral hazard and fatal compromise and too much of that is hidden from us, by design or otherwise. 

Kidman and Theron are compelling screen presences, of course. In particular, Kidman works hard to provide human angles and edges to the somewhat ambiguous Carlson, who tried to complexify the blond anchor-babe stereotype well past the Ailes comfort zone. You can feel Carlson, in this portrayal, as an intelligent woman beginning to wrestle with the how-did-I-get-here contradictions of her career — to be fair, nobody forced her to play blatant eye candy on a right-wing propaganda network — but because Kidman is playing a real person (whose settlement with Fox is covered by a real NDA), a lot of that has to be subtext in a movie no one would accuse of specializing in subtext.

Theron’s Kelly is closer to being the main character, which is kind of odd in itself, given what a slippery, unknowable figure the real Megyn Kelly turned out to be. Being the surprisingly sane and reasonably literate fembot amid the Fox News universe of trolls, robots and camp followers was the real Kelly’s only valid shtick, as we discovered when she tried to move to a more legit network and simulate actual journalism. Theron gives her life, but I’m not sure who the “her” is in this movie; this fictional Kelly is a vaguely sympathetic wife and mom with a law degree and a high-powered career which, oh yeah, happens to involve cheerleading for white nationalism and a certain presidential candidate talking about her menstrual flow on TV.

As Barry Ackroyd’s camera skitters through the jumbled office suites of the News Corporation’s Sixth Avenue HQ, past an admittedly enjoyable cast of bit players — Anne Ramsay as Greta Van Susteren! Kevin Dorff as Bill O’Reilly! Alanna Ubach as Judge Jeanine Pirro! — it occasionally lights on the story of Kayla (Margot Robbie), a fictional Young Woman from the Christian Heartland who becomes Ailes’ latest lust object. Kayla’s tale of violation and self-discovery, complete with same-sex fling with Jess (Kate McKinnon), a not-all-that-closeted lesbian producer, is pretty formulaic, but at least it doesn’t have to be told with hand signals, furrowed brows, and meaningful inflections.

I’m not sure whether this is perverse or appropriate, but by far the most interesting character in “Bombshell” is Roger Ailes himself, played by John Lithgow — in all seriousness, one of our greatest living actors — as a jowly, quivering, bottomless Jell-O mold of need and self-pity. He’s a seriously repulsive person – don’t get me wrong – but profoundly human in a way almost nobody else in this movie is allowed to be. You can feel his intelligence, his uncertainty and anxiety at the changes in the world around him, and his deep-rooted belief that his transactional lust for interchangeable young hairspray-dosed women is just the way things work, and that in the long run a certain rough justice is applied.

Furthermore, Lithgow is brilliantly matched with Connie Britton, who takes the thankless role of Beth Ailes, Roger’s wife, and delivers a symphony on the theme of “all the things women of a certain class must swallow.” Honestly, every moment Britton was on screen I couldn’t look away from her, and she never surrenders for an instant: Beth is not “relatable,” Beth is not a victim, Beth does not have a “breakthrough” where she sheds tears and begins to wonder how it all went so wrong. It’s a magnificent performance because she never displays any emotion stronger than disapproval or disappointment, yet beneath the changeable clouds of Britton’s expression you can sense a locked-down worldview crumbling into ruins.

So that’s about it, really: “Bombshell” offers glimpses of an intense marriage drama about one of the most hated and hateful people in recent American history. But in front of that off-Broadway play is a messy, semi-relevant Hollywood movie with famous actresses playing famous anchorwomen in a morality tale whose stakes are not altogether clear. This certainly isn’t a movie for Fox News devotees, but I can’t imagine it’s for #MeToo activists either. If you were desperate to understand who Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson really were after the Fox News scandal, then this movie answers that need by drawing a big question mark on the whiteboard: Who are any of us, after all?

"Bombshell" opens in select theaters on Friday, Dec. 13 and nationwide on Dec. 20.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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