How do you make a movie with Donald Trump as a character? With all of the divisiveness and conflicting emotions his presence creates in American society, how can a movie find a way to incorporate his presence without seeming overbearing or ridiculous? Bombshell, the recently released docudrama telling the tales of sexual harassment at Fox News, has an answer, but probably not the right one. By engaging with Trump’s 2016 phenomenon status and his very public feud with Megyn Kelley, Bombshell diverges from the story it wants to tell in order to portray something more tabloid friendly than workplace sexual abuse, and as a result, squanders an important opportunity.
From famed comedy director Jay Roach, Bombshell follows three female employees at Fox News as they deal with their traumatic, hostile work environment, spearheaded by Roger Ailes (Jon Lithgow). What makes Bombshell especially meta is the public persona of those three employees: Megyn Kelley (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and a composite character fighting for airtime named Kayla (Margot Robbie). While simultaneously interacting with the warring factions of conservative politics, issues of workplace sexual harassment, and gender-based power dynamics, Bombshell has a heavy load to carry. Kelley and Carlson are such massive figures looming over the American consciousness that telling their story requires a level of craft and understanding that Bombshell can never quite reach.
Theron as Megyn Kelley is the one mind boggling takeaway for viewers. At times approaching the uncanny valley, Theron captures Kelley’s essence, appearance, and voice so effectively, her scenes on the Fox News set feel almost like archive footage. With all of the conflicting public perception wrapped in Megyn Kelley’s persona, Theron surprisingly opts to play the character with immense compassion and understanding. Particularly in her scenes with her husband, Doug (Mark Duplass), Theron’s performance is remarkably warm despite the robotic nature of her delivery, creating a full character rather than an impersonation. Kelley has somewhat faded from stardom since her dispute with Trump and leaving Fox, yet seeing Theron on screen serves as a reminder of Kelley’s recent status as a media powerbroker and liberal punching bag.
Acting almost as if in a different film, Kidman does her best as Carlson, trying, but never quite succeeding, to give the character some dimension. As the person initiating the Ailes lawsuit which drives the story, Carlson should be front and center in Bombshell’s story, but her isolation, away from the Fox News offices limits her effectiveness. When the film really shines, it is thoroughly embedded in the goings on of Fox News, investigating the social conventions and power structure of the most watched news service in the world. Outside of that, Bombshell can’t maintain the same level of interest, making Carlson feel somewhat marginalized, as Kidman constantly hits the ceiling of what she can do with this character.
The best performance of Bombshell, however, belongs to Margot Robbie, as the curious conservative up and comer, Kayla. Because Kayla is fictionalized, Robbie has more creative freedom than Bombshell’s other characters and it shows in her dynamic ability to dominate moments. Her scenes with Lithgow are clearly Bombshell’s best, conveying a sense of fear and discomfort that the rest of the movie reaches for but never quite grasps. With her performances in Bombshell and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, 2019 was quite a year for Robbie, channeling her innate charismatic goodness that consistently lights up the screen. This February, Robbie returns to her role as Harley Quinn in a standalone project, Birds of Prey, meaning her movie star status can only keep rising from here.
But despite all of these quality performances, Bombshell lacks the cohesion it needs to be truly effective. With great parts, the film is not yet whole or ready to be understood. Partially, that’s because the film feels like three stories in one, with Kelley and Trump’s conflict clearly shoehorned in for public interest. That dispute is a clearly fascinating story, but when Bombshell explores it, the movie loses the momentum it was attempting to build through Robbie’s character.
The fact Jay Roach decided to tackle this controversial topic is quite interesting in and of itself. Far from his comedy background with such hits as Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers franchise, Roach has transitioned into a highly successful navigator of American politics. Whether it be Game Change, Trumbo, or even the outrageous satire of The Campaign, Roach has clearly attached himself to this narrativizing of recent politics that feels both new and old fashioned. Far closer to something like Vice than it is to All the President’s Men, Roach is still asking hard political questions and attempting to reckon with what America has become.
Yet, there is always something missing in Bombshell that Roach can never quite find. In total Bombshell feels like a mediocre film with two or three great films trapped inside of it, attempting to break out. Also portrayed in 2019 by Russell Crowe in The Loudest Voice, the activities of Fox News remain a captivating, elusive subject for American audiences. As more and more attempts of this kind are created, one can’t help but wonder if Fox News and its intricacies can ever effectively be captured on screen. A fascinating behemoth of American discourse, Fox News is certainly an interesting place to tell a story, but viewers and creators will always approach the topic with their own beliefs wearing down any ability to evaluate the portrayal on its own merits. Something like Succession feels so much freer than the restraints of Bombshell, as the show creates its own Murdoch-esque family and is not required to play in the confines of reality. Sure, Theron looks identical to Kelley and Lithgow makes for a convincing Ailes, but look-a-likes alone are not a compelling enough reason to tell this story. At its heart Bombshell is about something terrible and tragic, as a man who openly abused women was allowed to basically control American political discussion. I only wish the film was as interested in that story as I am.