The enemy of your enemy isn’t always your friend. As the country sinks further into a quagmire of entrenched tribalism, it’s important to remember that human beings are complex creatures with the capacity for qualities both noble and horrendous. (A colleague often finds himself adjudicating Twitter arguments by saying, “two things can be true.”) The mass polarization and ideological blindness of our broken contemporary culture are, I suppose, the only ways one can logically explain “Bombshell,” a baffling hagiography of disgraced television personality Megyn Kelly celebrating her role in bringing down Fox News chairman and accused sexual harasser Roger Ailes.
As played by Charlize Theron, who capably mimics the reporter’s inflectionless baritone and employs a panoply of prosthetics to resemble one of those Deepfake videos, Kelly is depicted as a tireless champion of women’s rights and her unfortunate habit of spouting ridiculous racist nonsense on the air all the time is just a wacky personality quirk that gets glossed over in a montage about Megyn’s “big mouth” getting her into trouble. (Apparently, insisting on live television that Santa Claus is white counts as speaking truth to power in this movie’s misguided moral universe.)
“Bombshell” is a curiously and quite strangely structured film, following three separate story strands that seldom intersect. The first chronicles Kelly’s infamous dustup with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during a Fox News debate after she dared ask him a substantive question and he whined and complained for weeks about it, demanding that she be fired and making cracks about her period. It’s hard not to feel sorry for someone in a situation like that, though Kelly did her best not to make it easy.
The second storyline follows Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes. She’s played by Nicole Kidman in makeup that’s slightly less distracting than Theron’s, but then what isn’t? (Anyway, she doesn’t really look like Gretchen Carlson. It just looks like Nicole Kidman has something wrong with her chin.) This leaves the gifted actress stuck behind a desk in her lawyers’ office for most of the movie, a dramatic rut considering she’s the one initiating the action in which all the other characters take part.
The third and most undercooked angle is entirely fictional, introducing dim-bulb wannabe anchor Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) hired at Fox fresh out of Bible college, mixing up b-roll stills of Glenn Frey and Don Henley because she “doesn’t know secular music.” This staunch conservative Christian who calls herself “a social influencer in the Jesus space” has no qualms, however, about falling instantly into bed with a friendly “O’Reilly Factor” producer and closeted lesbian/Hillary supporter played by Kate McKinnon. This is when you realize the movie was written and directed by dudes.
Screenwriter Charles Randolph won an Oscar for “The Big Short,” and “Bombshell” attempts — at least for a little while — to mimic that picture’s wiseacre narration and irreverent asides. A parade of semi-famous comic actors pop up in cameos as familiar gargoyles from the Fox News universe, delivering lines as if they were jokes even though what they were saying doesn’t seem like it was intended to be funny. (Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani is the biggest WTF moment.) Ironically enough, “SNL” cast member McKinnon gives one of the only performances that doesn’t feel like something out of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
But at the same time, “Bombshell” wants to be a serious movie about sexual harassment in the workplace, with all these women eventually working together to take down the ogre Ailes, played by John Lithgow in still more unconvincing makeup. (A movie that relies this heavily on prosthetics should not be so garishly overlit. It practically invites us to see the seams.) Lithgow brings a crotchety, avuncular quality to the role that’s almost adorable compared to the towering, terrifying portrayal of Ailes by Russell Crowe in Showtime’s recent “The Loudest Voice.” I felt like that miniseries was a mite flat and overwritten when it aired over the summer, but it’s practically “Network” compared to this big-screen botch-job. (Fun footnote: in the television version, Carlson is played by Kidman’s real-life best friend, Naomi Watts. I wonder if they traded notes.)
Whenever director Jay Roach isn’t busy strip-mining his delightful movies “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” for a dreadful succession of sequels bad enough to make you retroactively hate the original films, he’s carved out a sideline making flat, underwhelming political dramas for HBO. (If you think Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin opposite Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt is a can’t miss combination, you obviously didn’t watch Roach’s 2012 “Game Change.”) “Bombshell” is directed with the same inert staging and anti-pizazz as his TV work. There’s not an interesting shot in the picture.
And much as you’d probably expect from a #MeToo movie made by men, “Bombshell” wants to take down the designated misogynist villain while paying no attention at all to the structures and paradigms that allowed him to flourish in the first place. The aggregate toxicity of Fox News — the vile attitudes and ideals championed by its stars and viewers — are basically blown off with a couple of eye-rolls and one-liners from McKinnon, much in the same way Kelly’s racist rants don’t figure into the story at all. The way things play out, “Bombshell” could really take place in any old office with a creepy boss.
Why would you make a movie about Fox News and leave politics (mostly) out of it? The film’s weirdly reverential treatment of Rupert Murdoch (played by Malcolm McDowell in a putty nose) suggests that a lot of lawyers were in the mix during production. There’s also the bizarre choice to hinge so much of the movie’s dramatic momentum on Kelly deciding whether or not to join in Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes. All the action is taking place inside her head while Theron — an extraordinary actress in roles where we can see her face — might as well be wearing a mask. Meanwhile, Robbie, a performer of effortless sophistication and poise beyond her years, could not possibly be less convincing as a bumpkin just off a turnip truck.
The movie ends on such a bogus, rah-rah Megyn note, it’s hilarious that the closing title cards forget to mention that almost immediately afterward she was booted from NBC for defending blackface. I must confess that before seeing this film I was a little confused about what exactly the term white feminism means. Thanks to “Bombshell,” I get it now.