Midway through Bombshell, cameras swoop in on the contained chaos of the ladies’ wardrobe room at Fox News. Bare faces disappear under foundation thick as cake fondant; Spanxed bodies are encased in jewel-toned sheaths; a bloody, bandaged heel jams into punishing stilettos.
To be fair, television’s beauty tax is hardly new, but the symbolism encoded in all this Defcon femininity is not hard to miss. And as anyone who’s read the past few years’ headlines knows, being a female employee at Fox came with another cost: a “loyalty pledge” that often meant submitting to the sexual advances of men in power there, from then-network CEO Roger Ailes (played here with pudding-faced menace by John Lithgow) on down.
Bombshell is director Jay Roach’s imperfect but duly intriguing attempt to tell that story, and his primary weapon is the women themselves: Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson; Charlize Theron, nearly unrecognizable in feline, pointy-chinned prosthetics, as Megyn Kelly; and Margot Robbie as one of the movie’s rare fictions, an ambitious evangelical millennial (“I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space”) named Kayla Pospisil.
His other weapon is the words — most taken verbatim from interviews, eye-witness accounts, and public statements made by those involved — that screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) uses as a narrative backbone to unfurl the movie’s formative events from multiple points of view.
Randolph’s shrewd, ungilded script has a forensic quality that suits the material, much more than the odd documentary flatness — call it Law & Order verité — of its filming. “News is like a ship,” Lithgow’s Ailes growls early on. “You take your hands off the wheel, and it takes a hard left.” Though of course Fox under his watch is hardly in danger of any kind of port-side swerve, it doesn’t seem to be that way by coercion; the majority of the newsroom register as true believers, all genuinely loyal to the cause.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t still small acts of what he clearly sees as insurrection: When Kidman’s Carlson goes on air without makeup on to make a fairly mild point about the sexualization of young girls in pop culture, he barks at her that no one wants to watch a menopausal woman sweat.
And when Robbie’s bright-eyed Pospisil makes her play for an on-air role at the network, his closed-door “audition” of her attributes becomes one of the most emotionally harrowing scenes on screen this year; it’s like watching a big cat, aged but still ravenous, take down a baby antelope in the wild. (The story also gives Kayla a lesbian side plot with Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon that feels unfortunately on the nose, though in the end it’s handled with far less judgment than its gleeful “See? Hypocrisy!” inclusion implies.)
For much of the film Theron’s Kelly floats above the fray, largely consumed by personal attacks initiated by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump — a bizarrely one-sided feud for which Ailes offers his nominal support, but which still leaves her open to a level of public attention and derision that she and her husband (an excellent, understated Mark Duplass) are clearly unprepared for.
It’s only when accusations against Ailes reach a sort of critical mass that she is forced to take sides — or really, a side against herself: Should she be an advocate for her career, or for her own humanity? It’s a question countless women in far less powerful positions have faced, and to Roach’s credit, he resists making the movie a simple parable of villains and victims at nearly every turn. (Though he can’t seem to resist a good cameo; the faces who show up in bit parts as Geraldo Rivera, Bill O’Reilly, and Jeanine Pirro are notable mostly for their unsettling double-take accuracy.)
Other more substantial supporting roles are filled out by actors who could easily helm their own spinoffs, including Allison Janney as Ailes’ hard-nosed lawyer and Connie Britton as his ferociously loyal wife, a wolf in 10-ply cashmere.
But for all that, they rarely even appear together outside of one exquisitely fraught elevator scene; Bombshell belongs to its three main female stars. It’s their fierce, finely shaded performances that transcend the film’s drab visual style and drier episodic moments — not just by speaking truth to power, but by confronting the audience’s own ideas of who the right to do that belongs to. B+