Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2020)
Once primarily known as the director behind the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies, Jay Roach turned political with 2008’s Recount. 2019’s Bombshell offers another tale in that vein, as Roach looks at events that rocked Fox News.
Bombshell focuses on the experiences of three women at Fox News. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) enjoys her own Fox show and she gets to serve as one of the moderators in an August 2015 debate for the Republican presidential candidates.
When Kelly asks Donald Trump a question about his prior misogynistic comments, this blows up into a major story, mainly because Trump persistently insults her after the event. This leads to stress in both her personal and professional lives.
Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) works behind the scenes on various Fox shows, but she hopes to become on-air talent. This leads her to meet with network chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) in what becomes a degrading experience for her.
Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) also hosts her own show, but she regards this little-watched midday program as a demotion from her prior spot on the popular AM yak-fest Fox & Friends. Carlson suspects her refusal to go along with the sexist culture exemplified by Ailes plays a part in this unwanted shift.
Eventually Carlson launches a lawsuit against Ailes and she attempts to find other women to join. Among others, this leads Kayla and Megan into the proceedings.
Can I regard a movie about Fox News independent from the current political climate? Not really, especially since the events in Bombshell played a large role in the creation of said political climate.
No one can say for certain that Trump wouldn’t have won the presidency without the relentless, unquestioning support of Ailes and Fox News. After all, other networks didn’t do much to stop his ascent either.
That said, the others major TV news sources didn’t actively promote Trump in the way that Fox did, so credit or blame falls on their doorstep. We’ll never know how the Trump candidacy would’ve evolved without Fox, but given the narrow margin of victory, I think an election without Fox’s involvement wouldn’t have gone his way.
This feels like the wolf lurking in the background of Bombshell, as our knowledge of What Happens Next adds a dark aura to the film. The events depicted here end a few months before the 2016 election, so the movie doesn’t formally follow that, but we all know where it’ll go.
For the most part, Bombshell keeps this material in the realm of subtext, as even the involvement of Trump in the story – via his crude attacks on Kelly – doesn’t play a massive role. The world of Trumpism exists here, but the focus remains on Ailes.
That said, I clearly see that Roach wants us to interpret Trump in the same light as Ailes. Buried among the 1000 other scandals of the Trump administration, we tend to forget that many women have credibly accused Trump of varying degrees of sexual misconduct.
Bombshell doesn’t directly remind us of those claims, but it still feels like it wants to reflect them. The film’s ending offers a hopeful text note that women will continue to take down powerful men with their truth, and I find it hard to believe Roach doesn’t intend Trump as one of the recipients of this form of justice.
In terms of its social goals, Bombshell achieves success. It shouldn’t come as a shock that women live in a sexist world where they often must degrade themselves to get along, but the film paints these situations in painful detail, as it lets us get inside the women’s heads to feel their emotions.
As a movie, though, Bombshell proves more erratic, mainly because it doesn’t tie together the three lead characters especially well. Like I indicated, these women eventually come together in a way, but much of the film progresses like three semi-related but not especially well-integrated narratives.
Roach finds it tough to balance the three, so we wind up detached from one or two of the characters for semi-extended stretches. I don’t mind that Bombshell doesn’t attempt to give all three equal time – Kelly receives the lion’s share – but I’d prefer that it allows the plot points to mesh better than it does.
This means some awkward shifts in addition to the lack of balance I noted. Bombshell seems so eager to pack in so many narrative threads that it can rush at times and lose its way to a minor degree.
Honestly, Bombshell feels like a feature film that probably would fare better as a mini-series. The movie clocks in at 109 minutes, and another 30-40 minutes would flesh it out more vividly, so a much longer take would seem even more compelling.
At least Bombshell never becomes boring, and I can’t complain about the cast. In addition to the four actors I cited, we find a slew of names and almost-names here, far too many to mention.
At times, these choices can feel like stunt casting, but for the most part, they work. The star-studded cast adds credibility to the project.
Ultimately, Bombshell tells a worthwhile story and it does so in a fairly compelling manner. The movie never truly excels and would benefit from more cinematic breathing room, but it largely succeeds.