Incomplete, sensational ‘Bombshell’ provides potshots but little else

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/20/19

For better or worse, filmmakers can suddenly get very bold about critiquing a person after they die.

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Incomplete, sensational ‘Bombshell’ provides potshots but little else

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From left, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie star in 'Bombshell,' a film depciting allegations of sexual misconduct made against Fox News founder Roger Ailes by female employees.
From left, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie star in 'Bombshell,' a film depciting allegations of sexual misconduct made against Fox News founder Roger Ailes by female employees.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
Posted

For better or worse, filmmakers can suddenly get very bold about critiquing a person after they die.

A series of insightful Richard Nixon films emerged after his death in 1994, including Oliver Stone’s superb biopic. Clint Eastwood is in the midst of controversy for taking extreme liberties with his portrayal of the late journalist Kathy Scruggs in “Richard Jewell.” On the other hand, Hollywood often offers tentative treatments of living people that don’t stray far beyond the public record — Adam McKay’s “Vice” comes to mind. The difference, of course, is the inability of the dead to fight back, either in the courtroom or the court of public opinion.

“Bombshell” pulls few punches in its handling of late Fox News heavy Roger Ailes and the bevy of sexual abuse allegations that ultimately ousted him from his seemingly impregnable perch atop the network, less than a year before his death in July 2017. Spare no spite for Ailes, who built a career in the ruinous realm of politics while committing transgressions that were loathsome, if not illegal. The depths of Ailes’s depravity deserve to be exposed in exacting detail. But “Bombshell” restricts itself to plucking low-hanging fruit, wallowing in Ailes’s sins — both real and dramatized — while tiptoeing around any overarching endemic rot.

The film’s fulcrum is a lawsuit filed in 2016 against Ailes by former news anchor Gretchen Carlson (played by Nicole Kidman). However, Carlson’s story mostly becomes backdrop, likely because the settlement Carlson ultimately entered with Ailes and Fox came with a nondisclosure agreement. Instead, the primary focus shifts to two others. Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron), the former Fox firebrand, is cast as a near-heroine (a sure sign she consulted with the filmmakers), gradually becoming disenchanted with Ailes despite his role in launching her into stardom. Kelly’s initial unrest is Ailes failing to properly back her from attacks by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Then once Kelly learns that Ailes’s illicit behavior with Fox staffers was frequent and ongoing, she decides to tell investigators that Ailes also forced himself on her years ago.

The other protagonist is a composite character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a blond wide-eyed newbie who hails from a conservative family that worships Fox News. Because she’s not based on a specific named person (director Jay Roach says she represents several anonymous women who shared stories for the film), she becomes the character most abused by Ailes and his minders. She might also be a lesbian, since it remains murky why Roach included a scene in which she beds a fellow coworker (Kate McKinnon). McKinnon’s character is also a closeted liberal who nonetheless works as a producer for Bill O’Reilly’s program, and she tells a shocked Kayla the old yarn about O’Reilly and the loofah to prove he’s a creep, a well-trod story you’d think Kayla would have heard before moving to the big city and joining Fox.

That’s the last we hear about O’Reilly’s misdeeds for the rest of the film. Someone plays Fox co-president Bill Shine, too, but Roach never references Shine covering-up the allegations against O’Reilly and Ailes, which ultimately led to Shine’s ouster in early 2017. O’Reilly and Shine are still alive, of course, which apparently stunted the scope of Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph.

As a result, watching “Bombshell” feels like reading a book with half the pages torn out, and the pages we do read feel like they were written by someone hoping to rehabilitate her reputation. The film never scratches below its sensationalistic surface, so instead of lobbing bombs, “Bombshell” remains satisfied just taking potshots.

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