Jake Coyle & Lindsey Bahr
AP – It’s probably a testament to the make-up artists of Jay Roach’s Fox News docudrama Bombshell that the movie opens with a disclaimer announcing that the people depicted within are played by actors. Films don’t ordinarily require a heads up that that’s, you know, Charlize Theron.
But Bombshell is a savvy and flashy kind of docudrama that trades equally on recent headlines as it does the star power of its cast. Roach has a light hand with topical political stories (Recount, Game Change), as does screenwriter Charles Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short.
In Bombshell, they combine their breezy style with a powerhouse cast for a colorful TV-styled dramatisation that — despite the disclaimer — verges more on caricature than verisimilitude.
Bombshell depicts the corporate culture of harassment at Fox News through the perspectives of three women: star anchor Megyn Kelly (a husky-voiced Theron, almost unrecognisable), Fox & Friends star Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and a fictional composite associate producer named Katya Pospisil (Margot Robbie).
This is the story behind the toppling of Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow, in a fat suit), who after events kicked off by Carlson’s 2016 harassment lawsuit against him, was eventually ousted from the network he had long ruled as a powerful media fiefdom and, as it turned out, a personal harem.
The fallout at Fox News came before Harvey Weinstein’s downfall but it also, as a #MeToo drama, had a sensational backdrop. Fox News was never anyone’s idea of a natural battleground on women’s rights.
And Bombshell delights in going inside Fox News’ Manhattan studios (it opens with a travelogue of the various floors of its Sixth Avenue headquarters) and teasing out how this reckoning reverberated within what many in Hollywood would consider the belly of the beast.
Roach’s camera snakes through those offices, capturing how the predatory climate filtered down through the newsroom’s power structure.
As a workplace drama, it’s quite successful. We get a sense of whispers and rumours and careless misogyny everywhere. Glass tables are used on sets so that the legs of female correspondents can be seen.
Carlson draws Ailes’ ire for hosting a show without make-up on National Girls Day.
When the hopeful Katya, aspiring to become an on-air talent, goes into Ailes’ office to meet him and is soon told to hike up her dress, we arrive at the ugly source of the toxicity.
Each of the three women bear the burden of abuse in various ways, largely unaware that others share in their predicament.
And they, or at least the veteran TV personalities, are accustomed to being played against each other in competition for time slots and ratings.
The best thing about Bombshell is how it captures just how difficult it is for each to come forward.
At a network like Fox News, it means a kind of rejection of its entire culture. It means damaging one’s own career. It means going against what they, themselves, have often stood for.
That makes their story heroic but complicated. Bombshell is better at the hero part than the complications. Roach isn’t quite invested in reconciling what it means to have a protagonist like Kelly who, among other things, was last year fired from NBC for defending blackface.
Bombshell makes some gestures to Kelly’s complicity, but it mostly focusses on the unknowing solidarity between these three women.
Some might quibble that Carlson, who acted first, deserved centre stage. But this is Kelly’s movie and the drama for her has greater meaning.
She’s drawn into a fight she didn’t ask for when United States (US) President Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, attacked her debate moderating, saying “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”.
I would argue that Theron was better in another pointedly political movie from last year, the romantic comedy Long Shot, in which she played a presidential candidate who falls for her less polished speechwriter (Seth Rogen).
As famed as Theron has become for her extensive transformations, her considerable power, for me, comes through best in less adorned performances like in that film, Tully or Mad Max: Fury Road.
The question, ultimately, is whether Bombshell ought to have spun quite so snappy a movie out of such a story. It does cartwheels to make a vile tale compelling, and it can feel like a parade of starry impressions rather than something genuine. (Best of the bunch is Alanna Ubach’s Jeanine Pirro.)
But to quote Ailes in the film, “It’s a visual medium.”
CHARLIZE THERON HELPED SAVED ‘BOMBSHELL’
It was two weeks before cameras were to start rolling on a film about the misconduct scandals at Fox News that ended the reign of Roger Ailes and things were rolling along smoothly. The subject matter couldn’t have been timelier. The leads, including Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and John Lithgow as Ailes, were top notch.
Even the supporting cast was full of known names like Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon and Connie Britton.
Then, Theron, who was producing, and director Jay Roach got some unwelcome news: Their studio had pulled out. Bombshell was effectively dead.
“It felt like getting sucked out of an airplane at high altitude and just falling,” Roach said, shaking his head. “Has any film ever come back together two weeks out?”
There was a lot on the line and schedules for people like Theron, Kidman, and Margot Robbie were not exactly flexible. If it didn’t happen then, it might never happen.
But within 24 hours, Theron had found a lifeline in Bron Studios, a company that had earlier just been a small partner.
Within 72 hours, Lionsgate was on board too. Not only did Bombshell hit its original start date. They wrapped on time and under budget too. The last-minute panic gave everyone an even greater sense of purpose — not that they really needed it. The story itself was a stunning tipping point in the ongoing movement against harassment in the workplace that happened over a year before the Harvey Weinstein story broke.
In July 2016, Carlson filed a lawsuit alleging Ailes had forced her out of Fox News after she spurned his advances. Soon there were more women with similar stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew. He firmly denied the allegations, but in just a few weeks he was out.
The scandal has also inspired a documentary and a Showtime miniseries.
“It was part of the appeal to me that it was at Fox,” said Roach, who was hand selected for the job by Theron.
“It was surprising that an institution like that that is so male-centric, so Roger-cult-of-personality, would be the place that this happened. But harassment is non-partisan.”
Theron was even surprised at just how much she related to Megyn Kelly, despite political divides, “as a strong, independent woman who has a real drive and ambition and (who has) had those things turned on me and weaponised”.
Kelly makes for a unique protagonist in the story.
Her alleged harassment from Ailes had occurred years earlier and she had since become a star under his mentorship.
Kelly also, Theron said, liked him.
“We don’t talk enough about that kind of relationship that a victim can have,” she said. “I love that this story happened in such a grey zone.”
The nuance of Bombshell is showing all the different facets of sexual harassment in the workplace. For every famous woman who has resources to survive making a public accusation, there are scores of powerless victims too.
In the film, the latter is embodied by Kayla, a composite character played by Robbie. She’s an ambitious, young Evangelical millennial who worships Fox News.
Kayla gets an impossible meeting with Ailes, but it quickly becomes inappropriate.
Although the movie has yet to be released to the public, it has emerged as one of the film’s most talked about scenes.
“It’s so quietly disturbing and so unquestionably wrong. And yet if she walked out of that room and tried to explain what happened I think it would be very easy for people to question what had happened and not classify it as harassment,” Robbie said.
“And it’s not until you really live in that moment with her that you can truly, without hesitation, say that is not OK … I think that the most powerful and potent thing about it is letting men, particularly, have a moment to share that experience with her.”
Roach remembers operating one of the cameras and being worried that he was going to start to shake.
“I was so upset by it and I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “I didn’t know that I would be able to connect at that level. … Part of the film is to make men feel that discomfort.”
Theron, seated next to Roach, gets a big grin on her face: “We’ve opened up a can of worms and it’s beautiful. And it’s what makes me feel like there is going to be real change because we are now going into those areas that are a little bit more uncomfortable.” There was also Theron’s physical transformation that was necessary to embody someone as recognisable as Kelly. Kazuhiro Tsuji, who won an Oscar for helping Gary Oldman become Winston Churchill, was responsible for making Theron almost unrecognisable through prosthetics only.
“It’s actually not as much as people think,” Theron said. “The thing that makes Kazuhiro so amazing is he almost works backwards: He strips a lot of stuff away and what he chooses to put on your face is really specific and really delicate.”
There was also the voice work, getting her physicality down and finding the nuance in Kelly’s public and private personas.
“Nothing about this process or this movie was easy, but in a strange way I think that’s what all of us loved about it,” Theron said.
“Some movies are just meant to be, and the universe was not going to let this one not happen,” Theron said. “You could feel it and I’m so not a hokey person.”