“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
So sayeth Shakespeare. When evil comes, it often does so under the warm cloak of friendliness, or hidden within the grasp of a helping hand. In Bombshell, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) greets his prospective female employees with a grandfatherly twinkle. He can get them where they need to be, but first they have to help him. “It’s a visual medium,” Ailes tells one of them. “Lift up your skirt.” When she obliges, he growls with hunger. “Now, a little more.” Ailes pushes until tears flow down her face. He offers a grin of satisfied evil, and has her conceal her legs.
Bombshell is a study of an ugly man who surrounds himself with great beauty. Hired by Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) to provide a conservative counterpunch to CNN and MSNBC, Ailes deploys a squadron of leggy, Hitchcockian blondes who look a lot like the Vogue wing of Young Republicans. He keeps a direct line to the control room, and fumes when the cameramen pull in too tight. (“Wide shot! Wide shot!!! Let me see those legs!!!”)
The story looks at Roger Ailes through the eyes of three of his victims, each of whom occupies a different rung on the Fox News ladder: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is an anchor and network darling, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) colors outside the company’s political lines, and sees a pink slip in her near-future. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) burns with nuclear ambition, a trait that Ailes will attempt to exploit. All of these women have fallen victim to his lechery before, and each suspects they aren’t the only one.
Things come to a head when a newly-ousted Carlson files a lawsuit against Ailes. She’s stunned to find that other victims don’t come forward as expected. As the legal team at Fox News trains every warhead on Carlson, Kelly and Pospsil must reconcile everything they have to lose against everything that’s been taken from them. A battle with Ailes and Murdoch could be career suicide, but standing mute means the cycle will continue infinitum.
Bombshell peppers its shooting range with easy targets, and spends 109 minutes plunking holes in them. Fox News staples like Sean Hannity (Spencer Garrett), Neil Cavuto (P.J. Byrne), and Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana) wander into scenes like vacant, chauvinistic doofuses. They spout some predictably ignorant dialogue, before exiting stage right. Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) treats his female staff with alternating fits of seething contempt and twisted desire. An aide to Beth Ailes (Connie Britton) throws away her sushi lunch because she fears that it’s “liberal food.”
The movie spends so much time giggling at these tidbits that it almost forgets what a big deal this story really is. Ailes was a paunchy, craggy Goliath on the landscape of 24-hour news. The task of knocking him to the ground was a daunting, dangerous one, and such a showdown should have suspense baked right into it. Strangely, the final act of Bombshell fizzles, right when it should be sizzling. The script spends so much time being funny, it forgets to build the proper tension.
That’s too bad, because the lead performers turn in outstanding work. Theron plays Kelly as savvy, cool, and with a hint of wounded pride. Kidman’s Carlson brims with frustrated intelligence, just waiting to reveal that she’s already several chess moves ahead. Robbie’s composite character has the most to gain from Ailes, and she portrays Kayla’s emotional disintegration with shattering precision. As Ailes, Lithgow shows us a man complacent within the empire he has built. His dialogue finds the right balance between arrogance and blather.
It may not be perfect, but Bombshell still packs a punch. A man like Roger Ailes can rationalize, he can obfuscate, but he can’t outrun the white light of truth. Like so many monsters, Ailes had gotten away with too much for too long, and seeing these women run him through a ringer is a richly rewarding experience. Throughout his life, Ailes touted the benevolent things he had done for people, including all of his accusers. I suspect that somewhere, buried deeply beneath that sinister smile, lurked a man who knew he was the villain all along.
109 min. R.
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