Read any critic long enough and you’ll notice that they have certain hobby horses. They will tell you over and over again about how various movies fail or succeed at something that they find particularly interesting, or regularly return to some oft-used theme. So, with that in mind…
Jay Roach’s “Bombshell” tells the story of the downfall of Roger Ailes at Fox News. Or, put in better fashion, how Gretchen Carlson (played here by Nicole Kidman) took the incredible first step of speaking out against Ailes and how so many brave individuals, including Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), followed her lead.
No one would presume that every moment in this movie is true. There are regularly composite characters in such an affair—heck, Margot Robbie’s character, Kayla Pospisil isn’t real and she’s one of the leads—and conversations aren’t regularly recorded for posterity and for dramatic purposes things tend to get changed. The movie admits as much openly.
That said, there is an undeniable truth claim that the film, written by Charles Randolph, is also making. It is not just based on a true story, it does not just squarely situate itself at a specific moment in our history (the 2016 election), it is a movie where archival footage of actual people and events is used. Shepard Smith is not played by an actor in “Bombshell,” but does appear and not in something filmed for the movie itself. No, it’s a clip of him on camera on Fox News. There’s footage of the actual Rudy Giuliani at the Republican Convention in 2016 and then Richard Kind portrays the mayor as well. The movie even correctly name checks the outside law firm which did the investigation into Ailes (as if such a thing would matter to anyone outside that world and those who have family who work at the firm… a list which includes this critic). Despite any liberties taken, it most definitely wants to establish itself as existing within our world, as having really happened.
The result of this is that it is an impossibility to watch “Bombshell” and not wonder if particular moments are true to life. There are some over the top, unfathomable, events (no spoilers here); things that cause the audience to sit up and say “wait… no… that couldn’t possibly have…” and then just wonder if they did. Is truth really stranger than fiction?
It is a beautiful thing. Roach has created a movie with more than a dozen excellent performances—some leaning towards the comedic, some leaning towards the dramatic—and he uses them to tell this story of one wretched human being’s downfall and the courage it took to make that come to pass. It is the movie of a diseased business, one that everyone within knew was diseased, and how that business was allowed to shape our country because for a long time those running it cared more about profit margins than doing the right thing.
With so many characters to juggle, Roach regularly shifts the perspective of the film between his three co-leads: Kidman, Theron, and Robbie. This allows Roach three different perspectives on the events. Carlson is the older anchor on her way out, Kelly is the current (female) star of the network, and Pospisil represents a possible future. The way they each react to Ailes and their own staff speaks to their differing personalities and their places in their career. The movie juggles it all and does so quite well.
Additionally, there is, as noted, a bevy of other actors who step in and out as needed to help us understand the story and characters. “Bombshell” may offer three leads, but it has one of the greatest ensemble performances in recent memory. Without diminishing anyone unlisted, the cast includes: John Lithgow (as Ailes himself), Kate McKinnon, Rob Delaney, Liv Hewson, Connie Britton, D’Arcy Carden, Alice Eve, Mark Duplass, Tricia Helfer, Allison Janney, Ben Lawson, Alanna Ubach, Elisabeth Röhm, Nazanin Boniadi, Stephen Root, Anne Ramsay, and Malcolm McDowell. Back and forth the story goes between the three leads, bouncing from one perspective (and outrage) to the next, and it’s always fascinating, in no small part because there is this set of actors along with the leads who elevate every scene.
Clocking in at under one hour and 50 minutes, there is no bloat here either. It is a tight film, it is never rushed, but it doesn’t slow down either. There is simply too much story to be told for it to slow down. Could more time have been spent on individual moments or stories? Undoubtedly, but the pacing as it stands causes the audience to remain at the edge of their seat for the entire time.
Ah, but is it true? Is it demonstrably true? Again, Robbie’s character is fictionalized… so that part isn’t. Well, except that the basic claim made against Ailes is that he regularly treated women in the way his character treats Pospisil so even if she’s not real, there are undeniable elements of reality that exist within her. So, that’s true to the spirit of the events. Just how much has been fudged, though, is not something I’m capable of answering and it is something I’d desperately like to know.
Here though is the ultimate truth about the movie – “Bombshell” is insanely gripping. It may fictionalize elements, but the broader picture is true. It offers a large cast, all of whom do tremendous work. It will make you smile and laugh and get really and truly angry. By any definition of “must-see” filmmaking, “Bombshell” is the perfect fit.
photo credit: Lionsgate