Any long time reader of Oh! That Film Blog will be well aware of the fact that when it comes to choosing films to watch , I am very much actor driven over anything else. The prospect of a picture starring three firm favourites; Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, was a great cause for enthusiasm, and by every apparent metric, Bombshell looked like it was going to be a movie that ticked all of my preferential cinematic boxes.
It’s a bit of a downer, then, to report that it is actually something of a disappointment. Bombshell tells the story of the 2016 revelations that rocked the foundations of Fox News, the sexual harassment allegations against powerful CEO Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow). The film focuses on real life presenters Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) to unravel and reveal the downfall of the Ailes dynasty, with the addition of a fictionalised newsroom worker named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) to act as the narrative’s ‘central’ victim.
Stylistically reminiscent of something like The Big Short, Bombshell operates within that sort of slightly comic yet predominantly dramatic, fast paced vein of story telling. Theron’s Megyn Kelly provides voice over commentary at crucial points in the narrative, and there are certain images and sequences of footage taken from real life and spliced into the fictional universe on screen. As a style of filmmaking, Bombshell looks and feels like exactly the kind of thing that I like, but what becomes more and more evident as the film progresses is that it just, well, isn’t that great.
There is no doubting the importance and timeliness of the subject matter, arguably the first big #MeToo event before the #MeToo movement was even formally founded. It’s up to the viewer to separate the significance and emotion of large scale sexual harassment from the actual nuts and bolts of the film being presented on screen, because when it comes down to it, Bombshell just feels rather pedestrian and even ‘safe’ in some ways.
I’m also not afraid to admit that, whilst being an avid proponent of everything related to the #MeToo movement and similar activism, I simultaneously find myself somewhat fatigued by the current intersection of cultural affairs and entertainment. It feels like we’re all watching movies that tell exhausting stories about exhausting real life events that we’ve actually lived through not that long ago and are still exhausted from the first time around. You know?
I’ve actually heard the phrase ‘TV movie’ being thrown around by the fiercest critics of Bombshell, but the one thing that really does stop it from coming close to that territory are the performances from both the leading and supporting cast. As Megyn Kelly, Charlize Theron is virtually unrecognisable, pulling off a real transformative triumph as the famous news anchor. By the very nature of her politics and views, Megyn Kelly isn’t a woman of whom I am any kind of fan, and the Fox News, right wing centric atmosphere of the story’s setting does create something of an interesting quandary for a liberal viewer. No matter your feelings on Megyn Kelly, however, there is no debating that Theron is worth her recent Oscar nomination.
Nicole Kidman plays the slightly less juicy part of fellow news presenter Gretchen Carlson, the first of the Fox employees to lodge legal proceedings against Roger Ailes. The part is very comfortably in Kidman’s wheelhouse, it’s fair to say that for a long time now she’s been the kind of actress that you rarely have to worry about quality wise.
Margot Robbie is another standout as Kayla Pospisil, the only fictional character of the three leading ladies. Robbie is required to make a huge impact in a just a handful of key scenes, and she does this very effectively. There are elements of the character’s personal life that make Kayla a more interesting presence within the ‘Fox family’ dynamic, but these elements get a short shrift in the grand scheme of things which is a shame in my opinion. What is interesting to me that the character in the film that arguably feel most sympathy towards is the one that is not real and at best a composite of several different influences. One gets the sense that writers senses large portions of the viewership might have had a tough time fully aligning themselves with a version of Megyn Kelly…
As Roger Ailes, John Lithgow is suitably disgusting, entitled and pompous, with that ever so tiny hint of once upon a time charisma that the audience can sense would have provided him with his first feet on the ladder. The scenes between Lithgow and Robbie in particular are some of the film’s most distressing and effective; it’s in those moments where you can see a better picture threatening to jump out, but it never fully manages to.
Overall, Bombshell ends up being a distinctly average film that features a couple of really great, almost picture saving performances. Cinematic documentation of landmark social and cultural moments like the Roger Ailes scandal are essential, I just wish that this effort could have done more for its stellar cast. It feels inappropriate for me to label a story about taking down a systematically corrupt sexual harasser as ‘uninspiring’, but ultimately that is how I cam out feeling by the filmmaking. Uninspired. I know it’s only January, and I know it wasn’t a disaster by any stretch, but I feel like this could remain one of my biggest personal disappointments of the year.