By John H. Foote
Armed with three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Charlize Theron and Best Supporting Actress for Margot Robbie, Bombshell hits Blu Ray Tuesday after what can only be described as a disappointing release into cinemas. Expected to be a controversial film, destined to open the eyes of millions around North America, it ended up being reasonably well reviewed, but not near as controversial or “hot” as had been hoped. Yes, it details the way Fox News chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) went down in flames in a sea of sexual harassment accusations, but like others, I found myself wanting more.
No question the performances are first rate, there is not a weak link in the group of actors within the picture. Charlize Theron is astonishing as Megan Kelly, nailing that distinctive speech pattern, her movements, it is as though Theron took hold of Kelly’s soul for the duration of the shoot and made it her own. Truly a remarkable performance. Nicole Kidman is equally fine with less screen time as Gretchen Carlson, the woman who got the lawsuit moving choosing to sue Ailes personally rather than Fox News, as she was contractually bound not to do so. In fact, even though she settled for 20 million dollars, she cannot discuss the harassment or suit, though no question, quietly she has.
And Margot Robbie, the heart and soul of the film, is superb. Ambitious, eager, she arrives at Fox News full of ideas and hope for the future, her future, only to be stunned when Ailes makes it clear what he wants from her. Her character, Kayla, is fictional, but stands in for all the anonymous women Aisles harassed and humiliated in that carefully guarded office on the second floor. Robbie is every bright eyed, anxious to prove as women who got into television with the best of intentions, only to have their ambitions shattered by a lecherous old man, drunk with power.
As a man I probably will never know what it is to be sexually harassed.
I suppose there is a slim chance of being so harassed by a woman, or a man, but so far it has not happened, and I doubt it will. I have been witness to the fear in my wife and daughter when they encountered sexual harassment, and it is all consuming. Shame on any member of the male sex who does this to a woman or a man just because they can.
About a year before Harvey Weinstein was brought down as the sexual predator he had been for years, assaulting, harassing and raping young starlets, it was revealed the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) was doing the same thing, and had been for years. When he crosses a line and fires Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who had refused his advances, she cannot sue the network, bound by her non-disclosure contract, but she can sue him personally. That is exactly what she does, hoping other women fall in behind her.
During this time news woman and star of the network Megan Kelly (Charlize Theron) is also struggling with the memory of harassment, being harassed by Ailes a decade before, and now being attacked for her questioning of Presidential candidate Donald Trump. When she queries the candidate about his comments and treatment of women, Fox pulls back support for her, lessens her time on the air, keeping her away from Trump. Angry and seeking a way to expose Ailes, she falls in with Carlson to expose the man, a good friend of Trump.
A striking young woman, a recent hire, loves the Fox network and everything it stands for. Her beauty, body and genuine sex appeal make Kayla (Margot Robbie) a natural to soon be on the air, but also a target for the predator Ailes. She befriends a young closeted lesbian, portrayed with a jolt of energy by Kate McKinnon, and they become fast friends, falling into bed together, though Kayla makes clear she is not gay. When Kayla meets with Ailes to promote herself, he humiliates her, asking her to raise her skirt ever higher until, finally he sees her panties. He will complete the harassment, forcing her to have sex with him. Disgusted she goes to her friend, who passes on any involvement, telling her to let it go, there is no way to win. But Kayla, disgusted with Ailes, herself and having lost all regard for Fox News, joins forces with Carlson and Kelly, and they bring down Ailes, swiftly, completely.
The film is told with a brisk speed, a bouncy, light tone which juxtaposes the dark content, but involves the audience more than if they were doing a straight dark expose. Jay Roach, best known for his work on HBO movies Recount (2005) and the superb Sarah Palin film Game Change (2013), brings a bouncy, jaunty feel to the film, which is perfect. The characters often narrate the movie, break the wall and address the audience directly, a brilliant, involving move.
The performances are nothing short of astonishing, beginning with Theron as Kelly. Just enough make up transforms the actress into the spitting image of Kelly, and Theron handles the rest. She captures her essence in every way, that clipped voice and speech patterns, movements, body language, the manner in which she moves her arms, everything transforms the actress into a living breathing incarnation of Megan Kelly. This is no small feat because the news woman is so familiar to today’s audiences, so well known. It could have gone horribly wrong, but instead landed Theron an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It has been a while since Theron was heard from in the Oscar race, 16 years since she won Best Actress for her astounding performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). She was nominated again in 2005 for her work in North Country, fighting for women’s rights in a plant where females are under constant sexual harassment from the male workers. Theron deserved to be nominated for the action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) but did not make the cut, but she was there, and deserved to be this year. The transformation into Megan Kelly is remarkable, but she captures that which is most challenging, the intelligence.
Kidman to a lesser extent, but only slightly, does the same thing with Carlson, perhaps more fierce than Kelly, certainly bristling with anger and indignation. A much-loved actress, Kidman won her Oscar the year before Theron for The Hours (2002) as writer Virginia Woolf, and has been nominated several other times, before the win and after. Kidman is very much an actress, not caring if the role is a lead or supporting, provided it says something, speaks to her. She balances quite easily, being an actress with being a movie star.
Robbie is a revelation as the single character in the film who did not exist and is comprised of several women rolled into one. Ambitious, she arrives at Fox a sunny, thrilled young woman ready to take on the world, and knowing she has the looks, body and talent to do it. But when she realizes her looks and body are going to be exploited against her, that she will be asked to do sexual acts with an old man, that they do not take her talent seriously at all unless she lies down for them, she becomes appalled with everything about Fox. The late-night phone call she makes to her office pal, portrayed by the exceptional Kate McKinnon is heartbreaking, as she reveals the full horror of the harassment, and the humiliating fact that she gave in and performed oral sex on the man. Watch her face and body language, the joy is sucked right out of her, in a profoundly fine performance. Robbie might be the finest young actress in film right now, her performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) announcing her arrival, catapulting her into casting choices, but it was her utter transformation into disgraced skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017) that drew critics to her. You cannot imagine her physical beauty as you are speaking with her, and to see her become Harding was extraordinary. Twice in the last year she has been deserving of Oscar attention, the first time as sunny, Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and again here, as Kayla. Her nomination came for Best Supporting Actress, came for this film, and it was richly deserved.
Both Kate McKinnon and John Lithgow do excellent work, Lithgow given the edge here because he has more screen time and is brilliant as the lecherous old man who cannot keep his hands to himself or his zipper done up. The moment he lays eyes on Kayla, he has begun formulating what he will do to her and what he wants from her. When he executes his plan, we feel her disgust, her shame and her emotional pain, yet from him we hear only his increased breathing as he revels in her beauty and his power over her. She will never be the same. He becomes to us at that moment, disgusting, revolting, a monster. The look on his face when he is told Carlson taped his conversations with him for more than a year destroys him, his pleas of innocence suddenly mean nothing and his wife, always beside knows all in that moment. No court could have hurt him more, he was finished.
Roach does a fine job bringing this to the screen, especially so soon after the events actually happened. He did the same with the superb Game Change which saw Emmy winning performances from Julianne Moore and Ed Harris in a biting satire that sadly was all very true,
What makes Bombshell so disturbing, so filled with shame, is that it was drawn from life. It happened, and cost Ailes his job and reputation. I wonder what it cost the women … I think a great deal more.
Was it worth it sir? Was wounding those women worth losing everything you built? I wonder if you felt the shame you brought to them.
The Blu Ray is a clean, perfect transfer, exactly what we have come to expect from the medium.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.