Why 'Bombshell' Is a Dud
There is a great story to be told about the downfall of Roger Ailes. “Bombshell,” the recently released movie directed by veteran filmmaker Jay Roach, is not it.
The dramatization of the downfall of the late former Fox News executive Roger Ailes is buoyed by terrific performances from Margot Robbie and John Lithgow. They overshadow a talented cast and share the film’s most visceral and disturbing moment. Nicole Kidman also stands out for her portrayal of former Fox host Gretchen Carlson.
However, these performances have not been enough to help “Bombshell” at the box office. It has recouped only $20 million of its $32 million production budget since premiering nationwide on Dec. 20. The reviews have not been stellar either. There are reasons for that.
Disappointingly, Charlize Theron’s turn as Megyn Kelly is more distracting than anything else. The actor gets the mannerisms correct, but her attempt to sound like Kelly is unintentionally comical. Kelly has a deep, baritone voice. Theron does not. In an effort to imitate the former prime-time host, Theron badly overshoots "husky" and lands somewhere between Elizabeth Holmes and the Cookie Monster. If you have ever wanted to hear an Academy Award-winning actor talk like the disgraced Theranos founder for two hours, “Bombshell” is the movie for you.
Although the script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Charles Randolph has its bright spots, at times it seems bipolar.
The screenplay flips constantly from subtle and insightful to preachy and ham-handed. Characters are also written unevenly, including the fictitious one played by Robbie, who is presented first as a somewhat sheltered Christian millennial with a strong right-wing pedigree before the film lands her in bed with a lesbian co-worker (Kate McKinnon) immediately after their meeting. The paradox is that the movie actually tries to be fair and balanced. But like the network it covers, that effort is thwarted constantly by the ideological blinders of its creators.
The film’s use of character voice-overs is also hit-or-miss. In one great scene, for example, reporter Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi) is propositioned by one of her Fox superiors. Bakhtiar’s panic in that scene is conveyed poignantly by her internal monologue. It is a solid narrative choice. Other scenes that use the voice-over device, however, including the film’s closing moments, come off as hokey and whimsical, almost as if we are watching an episode of “Sex and the City.”
I am also still trying to figure out the point of McKinnon’s character. Is she intended to be a composite of closeted liberal lesbians who work at Fox and live in constant fear of being discovered? Having been around the network for several years, including in 2016, when the story’s action takes place, I can assure you that there are openly gay people who work there – and that network employees are not expected to be hard-core right-wingers or even conservative. I am not sure what purpose McKinnon is supposed to serve other than being a lazy dig against a version of Fox that does not exist.
The film’s greatest failing is that it tells the wrong story. The chief focus of “Bombshell” is Megyn Kelly. It wants to tell the tale of her eventual decision to accuse Ailes of sexual misconduct. But the hero of the real-life story – and the woman with the most to say – is Gretchen Carlson. Yet Carlson plays only a supporting role in a narrative she orchestrated. It is true that her lawsuit against Ailes ended with a settlement and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement, but there is still plenty of publicly available material to make a movie about the woman most responsible for the disgraced media tycoon’s defeat.
“Bombshell” prefers to focus on Kelly’s 2016 battle with Donald Trump. “Bombshell” is obsessed with Kelly's thoughts, her feelings, her family, her desire to be taken seriously in a man's world, etc. “Bombshell” wants to paint Kelly as a heroic and selfless figure, which is why it makes no mention of the fact that she leveraged her public opposition to Trump and Ailes into a three-year $69 million contract with NBC. Details of Kelly’s move to broadcast network television after she came out on the right side of a story that was put into motion already by more daring players are omitted in favor of scenes of her thinking hard about what it means to stand in solidarity with other women. Or whatever.
There is an exciting and meaningful story behind Ailes' downfall. It is the one where Gretchen Carlson risks the late news executive’s legendarily vindictive wrath to build a David vs. Goliath lawsuit against him, including secretly recording their meetings. Instead, “Bombshell” is a movie about Megyn Kelly’s decision to follow Carlson’s lead. That should not have been main story material. It would have made a compelling footnote to a better movie.