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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 3, 2020

Minor criticisms aside, ‘Bombshell’ delivers timely story with all-star cast




“Bombshell” opens with a disclaimer that states every character is portrayed by an actor except where archival footage is used.

Although this might seem like an odd way to begin a film about the 2016 ousting of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes in the wake of sexual harassment claims against him, I appreciated the heads-up.

How else was I to know it wasn’t the late Ailes on the screen, but John Lithgow laboring beneath a mass of prosthetics? (That’s my nice way of describing what Jake Coyle of AP calls a “fat suit.”)

I believe the disclaimer was director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph’s snarky way of saying, “This is a movie, so don’t expect us to stick to the facts.” And occasionally, they don’t.

I believe movie audiences generally accept some finagling in biopics. Key events are commonly shuffled for dramatic purposes and multiple individuals are often combined into a single character for efficiency.

The makers of “Bombshell” used both tactics to tell their story. For example, they waited until near the end of the film to reveal that former Fox News commentator Gretchen Carlson taped conversations during which Ailes suggested they have sex. This works because it creates a third act “gotcha” moment that yanks the rug out from under Ailes’ bellowing claims of innocence.

Also, Roach and Randolph seem to have combined several other women who said Ailes sexually harassed them, too, into the fictitious Kayla Pospisil, an evangelical millennial who ends up working for Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly.

In a powerfully acted and sickening scene, Ailes asks Pospisil to lift her dress during a one-on-one chat in his office about the future of her career.

A Slate article titled “What’s fact and what’s fiction in ‘Bombshell” reports at least one woman reported experiencing an encounter like this with Ailes. But Roach and Randolph veer even further from what happened in real life when Pospisil and a fictional Fox producer have a secret lesbian tryst, the same article suggests.

I can only guess why they did this, so I won’t, but it does damage the film’s verisimilitude and it’s an unnecessary distraction in a movie based on events that needed no dramatic embellishment.

That said, “Bombshell” works as a dissection of the predatory climate in place at Fox under Ailes’ leadership. Randolph’s script pierces to the heart of the horrors Carlson and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly must have endured during Ailes’ reign and gives us an unflinching look at the audacity of a monster. It also shows us how hard it was for these women to come forward.

Meanwhile, Roach deftly handles the movie’s frequent tonal shifts from snappy comedy to disheartening drama. One minute, the actors are breaking the fourth wall and spewing political snark, and the next, they’re depicting the soul-crushing humiliation women like Carlson and Kelly suffered.

Roach’s best work comes early in the film as he establishes the scope of the hostile climate at Fox News, with his camera breezing past glass tables that reveal the legs of the female talent and briefly stopping to show footage of male co-anchors laughing off their on-air comments about Carlson’s looks.

The best part of “Bombshell,” however, is its cast. Major league baseball has its all-stars, the National Football League has its Pro Bowlers and the Screen Actors Guild now has “Bombshell.”

Featuring Charlize Theron as Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Carlson, Margot Robbie as Pospisil and Lithgow as Ailes, the film is packed with heavy hitters who deliver top-notch work. Not only that, the supporting actors are just as good, especially Allison Janney as Ailes’ attorney, Susan Estrich.

Many of the actors are almost unrecognizable under the makeup and prosthetics. Nowhere is this truer than with Lithgow, who looks entirely unlike himself until the camera closes in and allows you to take a long gaze. And yet it was his performance, not his cosmetics, that made my skin crawl.

Robbie nearly steals the show from Lithgow. In one scene, she captures her character’s fear and uncertainty as she struggles to make a mark at Fox; in another, she nails Pospisil’s devastation after O’Reilly insults her for asking a smart question; and later, you can see part of Pospisil die when Ailes asks her to lift her dress “a little higher.”

As Robbie demonstrated in “I, Tonya” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” she has talent to spare. Here, she uses it to capture just the right expression, just the right body language and just the right emotion in every scene. Her character might have been a composite, but her performance is full of truth.

While Theron and Kidman deliver strong performances, too, they’ve done better work in other films.

“Bombshell” is not universally loved. Some critics say it doesn’t delve deeply enough into its subject matter, it glosses over the flaws of the people it portrays or it replaces less than honorable motivations with noble ones.

But I think Roach and Randolph hit the mark. Even at this stage in the life of the #MeToo movement, “Bombshell” doesn’t feel like a me-too movie. It feels like the culmination of the many efforts to portray the scandals that led to a cultural shift in attitudes and behavior. It’s not perfect, but it is well-made and relevant.

And it has Malcolm McDowell as Robert Murdoch, which alone would be worth the price of admission.