They Retort, You Deride | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Culture » Film Reviews

They Retort, You Deride

Bombshell's dead-ringer performances don't elevate a self-congratulatory poke in the eye at Fox News.

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LIONSGATE
  • Lionsgate
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Charlize Theron looks a lot like Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. There, it's out in the open. Whatever movie magic was employed—digital, prosthetic, makeup, hairstyling, pure physical performance—it yielded an uncanny resemblance between the actor and the real-life individual that actor is portraying. It would, however, be great to move on from "Charlize Theron looks a lot like Megyn Kelly" to whether that has any bearing on whether Bombshell is actually a good movie.

Because it's not. There's a scandalous premise at Bombshell's core: the sexual harassment allegations at Fox News in 2017 that brought down the network's founder and architect, Roger Ailes, along with popular commentator Bill O'Reilly. It has familiar actors impersonating high profile public figures—in addition to Theron's Megyn Kelly, we've got John Lithgow under a mountain of fake fat as Ailes, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani. It's got a title that's a pretty solid bit of double-entendre: the shakeup at Fox News was a media bombshell, and it involved the network's creepy obsession with putting attractive blondes on camera.

Beyond that, what there is there in director Jay Roach's movie? On its most fundamental level, Bombshell is an exercise in cinematic schadenfreude; it exists so that an audience furious at everything Fox News represents can revel in watching its mastermind brought low. People justifiably talk about franchise blockbusters engaging in "fan service," those little moments where a filmmaker winks at the viewers and lets them know, "I'm on your side. We both know what you came here for, and I'mma give it to you." That's exactly what most of Bombshell consists of. Wherever your own political perspectives line up, you'd have to recognize that this movie is basically progressive fan service.

There are moments when Bombshell offers glimpses of the different kind of movie it could have been. One significant subplot focuses on a fictionalized Fox News associate producer named Kayla (Margot Robbie), who in one of the better lines in the script by Charles Randolph (The Big Short) touts her Millennial credentials as "an influencer in the Jesus space." Robbie effectively plays both Kayla's ambitions to be an on-camera personality and the risks of her sexual relationship with a female co-worker (Kate McKinnon), and gets a devastating showcase in the one scene that drives home Ailes' dirty-old-man perversity.

None of that, however, is enough to really give Bombshell a voice that provides insight. Occasionally, the film is interested in poking around in the weirdly specific way that Fox News actually functioned: the grudges that meant there were certain names you did not mention when pitching a story to O'Reilly; the pragmatic purpose of clear desks for the female anchors; a value on blind loyalty over decency that, I dunno, might have some similarity to the way a major American political party currently behaves. Those snippets, unfortunately, are too few and far between. And if the revolutionary notion here is that an organization built on appealing to the worst in humanity actually employed some of the worst humans ... well, that hardly warrants a "BREAKING NEWS" chyron at the bottom of the screen.

What remains is a showcase for performances: Lithgow strikes the appropriate notes of oozing entitlement as Ailes, and Kidman is fine in an underwritten role. Theron generally takes center stage, and early on captures the sense of someone trying to remain part of an organization that would let her dangle before daring to anger the future president. It's a strong, well-tuned performance beyond the physical transformations, but the movie too rarely challenges her or any of these women for being part of something that only starts to seem bad to them when it's bad to them personally. We learn in Bombshell that the twin imperatives at Fox News were "frighten" and "titillate"—in short, to appeal to the viewers' lizard brain. This movie has more or less the same goal in mind, making sure we feel good congratulating ourselves for recognizing that sexual harassment is bad, and Fox News is worse.