One of the highest-profile stories to emerge from the #MeToo movement gets feature treatment in “Bombshell,” a female-centric look at the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes amid sexual misconduct allegations in 2016. The headlining trio of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie make good on the promise of their splashy casting, delivering a film that’s both soberly, sympathetically thoughtful and bristling with the energy of its high-powered setting.
Put aside any thought that this might simply be a late-arriving rehash of “The Loudest Voice,” Russell Crowe and Showtime’s acclaimed miniseries take on Ailes. Among the ways that “Bombshell” offers an alternate viewpoint is by focusing squarely on the women of Fox News. Even then, the brightest spotlight is trained on former network anchor Megyn Kelly (Theron, doing a fantastically convincing impression) rather than on Ailes’s initial accuser, Gretchen Carlson (Kidman).
The movie begins digging into its freighted subject by revisiting Kelly’s infamous “war on women” sparring session with then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump at a Republican debate in 2015. Message: While the filmmakers might be probing the guilt of one man, Ailes, he was also part of a culture that’s disturbingly far-reaching, with a number of emblematic faces.
Theron’s complex arc is also used to make clear just how much went on at Fox in between Carlson filing suit against Ailes and her network colleagues and co-workers getting behind her. Those me-too’s don’t exactly come in a cascade to start, as we watch Kelly, Robbie’s ambitious composite character, and others debating whether to speak up, trading arguments about career preservation and moral obligation. In fact, Kidman’s most striking moment doesn’t come in one of her exchanges with Ailes (John Lithgow, working in broader megalomaniacal strokes than Crowe), but at a point when she openly laments having just “jumped off a cliff.”
Robbie has the scene that most powerfully communicates the awfulness of the women’s circumstance, as her newbie’s excitement at lucking into an impromptu get-to-know-you meeting with Ailes swiftly devolves into degradation that’s hard to watch. Quick-hit player Nazanin Boniadi is likewise eye-opening in a 2006 flashback as journalist Rudi Bakhtiar, whose inner monologue we hear as she futilely parries harassment, which threatens to derail her career with Fox.
This snippet is one of various clever, sermonizing-preventive touches that filmmaker Jay Roach brings to the movie, never mind our surprise at “Bombshell” being the work of the director behind “Austin Powers.” (And not the work of a female director, for that matter.) No coincidence, clearly, that Roach teamed on the project with screenwriter Charles Randolph, whose collaboration with comedy director Adam McKay on the script for “The Big Short” nabbed an Academy Award.
If there’s any way that Roach slips back into a creative pigeonhole, it’s by being overly keen on sticking his actors in prosthetic makeup. Richard Kind’s Rudy Giuliani, for one, elicits an unintended chuckle. And while Theron’s makeover is, again, uncanny, Kidman’s cleft chin is needlessly distracting. We’d buy her performance without it.
But then, shame on us for keying in on looks, to an extent. After all, that’s part of the very social dynamic that the film examines. “It’s a visual medium, Kayla,” Lithgow’s manipulator scolds Robbie’s staffer as he presses her to show more skin. And as her stomach turns and her heart sinks, so do ours.
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.
Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Charles Randolph. Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 108 minutes. R (sexual material and language throughout).