I suspect I won’t be alone in saying that I went into “Bombshell” with a touch of skepticism. The movie is a lively and scabrous docudrama — not a snarkfest (though some of it is bitingly funny) but a meticulous, close-to-the-bone chronicle of how Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron), one of the star anchors of Fox News, and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the host of “Fox & Friends,” brought down the lecherous right-wing mogul-titan Roger Ailes by revealing the veritable system of sexual harassment that he used to run his network. In the two years since the reckoning brought on by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we’ve been waiting for a drama that indelibly dramatizes the fear and loathing and stark human cost of sexual harassment. The wait is over: “Bombshell,” directed by Jay Roach (“Game Change”) from a script by Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”), is that movie. Yet watching it, I knew that I’d have to view, as heroines, two of the women who became celebrities at Fox News, a network built on the toxic DNA of corruption and lies. Would the film acknowledge their complicity in that? Or would it be a Hollywood whitewash?
Neither one of them is still at the network, but the movie, in fact, acknowledges their complicity. As it opens, the 2016 presidential campaign is in full swing, and Kelly, before the Republican debate hosted by Fox News, is preparing to lob a grenade at candidate Donald Trump in the form of a question about his egregious treatment of women. There’s backstage drama as Kelly, on the day of the debate, gets so sick that she throws up repeatedly. Is it nerves, or was her coffee poisoned? It turns out to be the latter, which suggests that taking on the right-wing power structure is a dangerous thing to do.
At the debate, Kelly calls Trump out on his misogyny and generates headlines, and Trump’s response — making vile remarks about her menstrual cycle — creates even bigger headlines. It becomes one of the first of Trump’s sick-joke Twitter memes. “Will he get away with this? No way! OMG, he’s not just getting away with it, it’s boosting his popularity!” The film invites us to see the moxie it took for Kelly to face Trump down, and to deal with the consequences of his hideous remarks. But after the situation has settled a bit, she agrees to do a one-on-one interview with Trump, and when she’s in a Fox editing suite watching the tape, her own husband, Doug (Mark Duplass), calls her on the carpet — for going too easy on Trump, letting him off the hook.
The scene stings, because it isn’t just that Kelly threw Trump a softball; she aided and abetted the selling of his message. “Bombshell” is a scalding and powerful movie about what selling, in America, has become. The film is about selling sex, selling a candidate, selling yourself, selling the truth. And about how at Fox News all those things came together.
At first, there’s a stark contrast between Kelly’s public image and the dark secret about harassment that she’s carrying around. A former lawyer who’s known (as she tells us in voice-over) for her big mouth, she has a fast wit and slicing intelligence. Theron, wearing prosthetics that alter her features with convincing subtlety, makes her tough and likable — a straight-shooter with the hardness of a diamond. Her decision to confront Trump on the issue of women arrives at a moment when Fox is ambivalent about Trump, because the network is still weighing his influence. Ailes (John Lithgow), a right-wing ideologue, is also a showbiz junkie with a genius for what it takes to heat up the cool medium of television; he gets Trump and loves him. But if Ailes is the boss, he’s not the king — that’s Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), the corporate baron who, at that point, is still skeptical of Trump.
Kelly, however, is rocking the boat. She’s poking holes in the candidate by embracing a feminist agenda, and in doing so she’s tweaking the secret weapon of Fox News: that it’s selling a kind of pornography — a fusion of leering and vengeance. It’s right-wing red meat decorated with blow-dried-blonde cheesecake.
Kelly understands this because she herself was harassed by Ailes, the corpulent pasha who micromanages the news feed (and insists that the women on-air sit behind plexiglass desks that expose their legs), even as he treats the office itself as his brothel. The film introduces a third figure in the newsroom, an ambitious young Christian millennial named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) — she’s a composite character — who’s smart enough to go where the power is. She gets a job working on Bill O’Reilly’s team and learns the ropes by falling into bed with Jess (Kate McKinnon), who’s a closeted lesbian and (at Fox, even more scandalous) a closeted Hillary supporter. The two giggle about what a secret circus the office is.
But then Kayla sidles up to Ailes’ assistant (Holland Taylor), who is also his procurer. Does Kayla know what she’s getting into? The way the film portrays it, she does and she doesn’t. She knows, instinctively, that her beauty opens doors, but she has little idea of what happens when the doors close.
Russell Crowe, on the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” nailed Roger Ailes’ imperious blunt force but may have missed his sense of humor. Lithgow, who is one of the wittiest actors alive, makes Ailes disarmingly human: a despot who’s ironic about his ogre-like qualities, with a hidden glimmer of vulnerability that only makes him scarier. Talking to an aspiring young “talent” like Kayla, he’s gentle, fatherly, a good listener; his rap on why the liberal embrace of a black Santa Claus is too elitist is done with surprise dexterity. But, of course, he’s also playing Kayla, grooming her. He talks about what he requires from his employees — it’s one word, “loyalty,” but that’s like a mob code word that means “I own you.” Or more precisely: I own you if you want to be on television. (And who doesn’t?) He tells Kayla to get up and do a spin for him, which is his ritual (“It’s a visual medium”), but then, as he asks her to hike her skirt a little higher, then higher still, Robbie lets us feel the pressure-cooker agony of what’s going on inside her. It’s an excruciating scene, but the drama of it is breathlessly sustained. It sears the horror of harassment into our hearts.
Gretchen Carlson, fired by Fox for trying to do stories that speak to the yearnings of women (which is anathema to Roger), is also a harassment victim, and she decides to take action when her lawyers come up with the strategy of having her sue Roger personally; that way, the company can’t back come at her. But the suit won’t stick unless other women come forward, and that’s the drama of the movie. Will Megyn speak out? Will Kayla confront what’s happening to her? Will they prevail over the enabling office pathology of Fox News, represented with grim hilarity by such characters as the angry good soldier Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach)?
It’s easy enough to rip a story from the headlines, but not so easy to make it stick. “Bombshell” has a finely textured, savagely pinpoint, you-are-there verisimilitude that the films of Adam McKay (“Vice”), with their fusion of topicality and borderline satirical ‘tude, don’t. The office backbiting, the water-cooler ambition and treachery, the abusive secrets hovering in the air like smoke from burnt rubber — all of that gives “Bombshell” the excitement of gossip infused with psychodrama. It’s suspenseful, and deeply satisfying, to see Ailes’ web of power unravel, as Lithgow’s performance becomes a tightrope dance of rage and fear. This, more than a year before the fall of Harvey Weinstein, was the real start of the reckoning, from deep within the right-wing heart of darkness. But “Bombshell” also shows us the cost that this fight extracted. Theron, Kidman, and Robbie, each playing a character who feels hideously compromised by the harassment that enchained her, create a liberating triumvirate of courage under fire. Together, they drop a very big bomb, and the world is still reeling from the fallout.