The entertainingly potent Fox News docu-satire, Bombshell, is jammed with incident — largely based on events at the network during the 2015 election cycle — but the film’s most unsettling nugget is one that’s presented in the first five minutes. Talking directly to the movie camera, Fox News superstar Megan Kelly (Charlize Theron) breaks down the distribution of power in the Fox building, beginning with the second floor offices of CEO Roger Aisles (a brilliant John Lithgow) who is convinced the Obama White House is hatching a plan to “have me killed.”
Upstairs, Kelly nods to her fellow news stars on floor seven, and quickly passes by the eighth floor offices of Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) and his sons, who together own everything and seem to control little. Finally, standing next to an exquisitely lit model of the News Corp building, Kelly explains, with a Vanna White sweep of her hand, that above the Fox News and Radio floors are the offices of The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, making for “most of the American conservative establishment in one building.”
Kelly, of course, was an often incendiary participant in that conservative world, particularly in her Fox years, a fact director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) clearly mean for moviegoers to reckon with on their own. As played by Theron, Kelly is a complicated, painfully precise person, dismissive of other women when it suits her career — which is most of the time — and yet genuinely stricken by the plight of harassed women at her place of business. The paradox is both fascinating and disorienting, as it no doubt is in real life.
On debate night, Kelly confronts Donald Trump with the heinous statements he’s made about women through the years, which sends the candidate racing to Twitter, where he calls Kelly a bimbo and soon after, makes his famously nasty remarks about her menstrual cycle.
Things go downhill from there for Kelly, who finds herself besieged on all sides, and then thrown into an unexpected moral quandary when long-time Fox News star Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) sues Aisles for sexual harassment. Kelly has her own experience of such behavior by Aisles. Should she, will she, speak up?
In a subplot that gradually becomes the emotional heart of the film, Kayla (Margot Robbie), a (fictional) Fox-worshipping researcher new to the company, has big-time dreams of an on-air career. She wrangles a meeting with Aisles himself, who smiles at her views on the importance of Santa Claus being white, and then asks her to “stand up and give me a twirl.”
In this moment, and all that follow, Robbie, who made an indelible Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time . . . in Hollywood, brings home the pain of sexual harassment and assault. Kayla obeys when Aisles asks her to pull her skirt all the way up, and in the days and months that follow, keeps going back to his office where the abuse escalates. She’s ambitious, yes, but also a person who believes, inherently, in the goodness of people. The gradual dimming of her vibrant spirit after each of those visits — and the long, humiliating walk to Aisles’ office — make this not just an affecting performance, but sadly, an era-defining character.
Of course, this type of power play assault against women has been going on in workplaces forever, but in the wake of Weinstein, #MeToo and Trump (beyond his offensive tweets and that Access Hollywood tape, the current president has been accused of rape or sexual harassment by at least 23 women since the ’80s), it is particularly powerful, and yes, ironic (or not) considering FOX’s allegiance to the man in office.
This marvelously cast film includes an appropriately intense Alanna Ubach as Fox/Aisles zealot, Jeanine Pirro, a creepily knowing Holland Taylor as Aisles secretary (and procurer?) and the great Richard Kind as Aisles’ lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Kind should play Rudy in all the movies and TV series to come (considering what’s going on with the government right now, there will be no shortage of them). As hysteria grows over Carlson’s lawsuit, Roach cuts to a painfully funny montage in which the network’s female stars are on their cell phones vociferously defending Aisles and the network’s respectful treatment, while they’re trying on tight, short skirts for their next broadcast.
It’s worth noting that Roach and his long-time editor Jon Poll don’t give much screen time to Trump. He’s in the background, to be sure, on TV screens, spewing his vile inanities, but there’s the sense that the filmmakers included him reluctantly. One can easily imagine a final edit on the film in which the president’s screen time was whittled down to nothing, or as close to it as possible. Though he’s hard to ignore at this moment of time, the collective American memory, one imagines, will soon be trying to do the same thing.