A phrase I kept jotting in my notebook during a “Bombshell” screening, “So many great women!” could apply to the star-studded cast or to the real folks who have stepped forward in the #MeToo era to insist that their voices be heard.
Three key women in “Bombshell” are among those voices: Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and a composite character called Kayla (Margot Robbie). One of the most potent, even suspenseful, scenes in the fact-based movie features them entering an elevator one by one and eyeing each other, as if working up the nerve to speak. All three are being abused by Fox honcho Roger Ailes and, at that point in the movie, they’re unsure what — if anything — to do about it, especially since none is sure if she’s the only one. Knowing what we know now, we wish they’d say something to each other even though we’re pretty sure they won’t.
The abuse depicted is shocking, but “Bombshell” is surprisingly entertaining. And a comedy. The screenplay by “Big Short” Oscar winner Charles Randolph is jam-packed with zingers such as a Fox employee (Kate McKinnon) explaining to a newbie (Robbie) as they walk through their office: “Ask yourself what would scare your grandmother or piss off your grandfather. That’s a Fox story.”
Theron’s brittle intelligence suits Kelly, who is depicted as so career-focused that she hesitated to do anything about Ailes. Her hesitation is called out when Kayla and Megyn finally do speak and when Kelly asks a female underling if she knows of anyone who has been harassed and the underling shoots back, “Is this one where you really want to know or one where you want to look like you want to know but you don’t?”
Kidman captures Minnesota native Carlson’s calm decency as she leads the charge and waits for others to join her. Robbie is the most moving as a woman whose ideals vanish in front of our eyes (and in front of Ailes’, as he demands to see her panties). McKinnon is not only hilarious but also poignant in a regretful scene in which, sensing co-worker Robbie is about to share a story of abuse, she asks her not to.
In many ways, “Bombshell” is a depiction of a whisper network so quiet it can’t benefit anyone. For a variety of reasons, all the women we meet are afraid to talk about what happened to them.
As a result, much of the abuse remains a secret even at the end of the movie, a secret that director Jay Roach smartly reminds us of by capturing pointed looks from Brooke Smith as a public relations exec with an impossible job, Allison Janney as Ailes’ brassy lawyer, Holland Taylor as his mysterious assistant, Connie Britton as his deluded wife and Alanna Ubach as the even-more-deluded Jeanine Pirro. Those looks linger long after the movie is over and, in fact, I’m still trying to puzzle out Taylor’s meaningful glances as she buzzes Robbie into Ailes’ office.
The only thing “Bombshell” has more of than great women is iffy prosthetics. Theron looks just fine but John Lithgow as Ailes appears to have reused his Winston Churchill jowls and gut from “The Crown” and slathered more on top of that, and the guy who plays Bill O’Reilly is so encased in rubber body parts that he resembles a Muppet.
Luckily, those dudes aren’t onscreen much. This movie belongs to the women and, like the book from New York Times reporters who wrote “She Said” about women coming forward with accounts of abuse, it’s both a spellbinding effort to get to the bottom of a mystery and an inspiring call to arms.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language and sex-themed violence.