Even before Kayla (Margot Robbie) is called into the office of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), we know what is going to happen.
We’ve seen enough of how this man treats women to know that things will not go well for Kayla. And the score is appropriately morose and unsettling as Kayla leaves her cubicle and walks to Ailes’ office – two notes repeated over and over again.
But then something interesting happens- it becomes a duet.
Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who has also been abused by Ailes, walks into the elevator with Kayla. And though the two ladies never say a word to each other, the music changes noticeably. With two voices, the song becomes more complex, less downbeat and even a little bit hopeful.
By the time the also-abused Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) walks into the elevator and the song becomes a trio, Theodore Shapiro’s “Elevator Trio” has made a case for being one of 2019’s most indelible musical moments in film – not just because of the music itself, but because of what it symbolizes. It is a touching reminder of how the powerless and abused can band together to support each other and make a difference.
The song is not the least bit subtle. It’s moments like this that remind you that, before spending the last decade on serious-minded political dramas like this one, director Jay Roach was best known as the guy behind the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” movies. And there are many other moments just like this in “Bombshell.”
So, yeah, “Bombshell” has as little subtlety – and as much brutal force- as a sledgehammer. But given the subject matter at hand, that seems appropriate. I don’t think there’s any other way that you could -or should- tell this story.
That story, as you’ve likely guessed by now, is from our recent past – or the summer of 2016, to be exact. Roach chronicles one of the first major victories of the #MeToo movement, when Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, her boss at Fox News. That single action had some major ripple effects as 20 other women came forward with their own stories, and Ailes was eventually removed as the CEO of Fox.
Ailes, like all abusers, didn’t discriminate. So while Roach’s film gives plenty of screentime to Carlson and Kelly, he also spends a lot of time with Kayla, a composite character serving as a stand-in for many of Ailes’ less famous, but no less important, victims.
If this sounds like heavy stuff, it isn’t. “Bombshell” is a tonal high-wire act that is something to behold. It takes the sexual assaults seriously and treats the victims with respect, but it also moves at a brisk, energetic pace. It comes off less like “Spotlight” and more like a peppy caper movie.
Certainly, the script by Charles Randolph goes a long way toward finding that perfect tonal balance. Randolph borrows some of the best tricks of the trade- the walk-and-talks of Aaron Sorkin, the straight-to-the-camera explanatory monologues of Adam McKay- to keep the film moving quickly.
The expertly-calibrated performances are also key. All three of our leads bring their A-game in “Bombshell.” When your ensemble’s weakest (though by no means weak) link is Nicole Kidman, that’s a sign that casting director Allison Jones has done her job marvelously well.
Theron gets the showiest performance here, and she simply disappears into the role. She nails Kelly’s look and mannerisms and voice, and manages to give her a little humanity as well.
Robbie, on the other hand, is much more understated, but her character’s evolution from optimistic to disillusioned is key to this story. She sells the hell out of it, and brings an impressive humanity to what could have been a simple stock character.
The whole ensemble is great though, and Kidman and Lithgow hold their own nicely.
The ensemble cast is incredibly deep, with many great character actors hidden behind either heavy makeup (Marc Evan Jackson as Chris Wallace, Stephen Root as an attorney) or heavy accents (Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani).
If anything, the constant parade of cameos is distracting at times, and it’s a symptom of Roach’s “more is more” directorial philosophy rather than what this story actually needed.
The same goes for some of Roach’s storytelling choices, including a lengthy bit of time spent on the campaign trail with Donald Trump. These sections aren’t bad necessarily, but they do seem unfocused and perhaps dilute the message a little bit.
Roach does everything big here – the performances are larger-than-life and so are the characters, the story and the stakes. And, as much as I enjoyed “Bombshell,” (rated R for sexual material and language throughout), that larger-than-life quality can make it a little exhausting at times.
Could another filmmaker have told this story with more nuance? Almost certainly. Would it have been better? I’m not sure. In telling the stories of serial abusers like Ailes, nuance can feel a little bit like using kid gloves. Sometimes, you need to scream these stories from the rooftops in order to get your point across. That’s what “Bombshell” does. And it works.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.