It’s 2015. Imagine working for Fox News. Imagine being a woman working for Fox News. Imagine being a young, attractive, white woman (preferably with long blond hair) who has heard that to get ahead at that TV network you’ll undoubtedly be expected to grant sexual favors, not just once but on a regular basis, to executives above you, up to and including Roger Ailes, who until 2016 was the Fox News CEO.
That’s what Bombshell is all about. Since director Jay Roach’s fast-paced, bitchy, business world drama — written by Charles (The Big Short) Randolph — is of course based on true events, we know ahead of time that rightwing media string-puller Ailes (played with reliable silken loathsomeness by John Lithgow) eventually gets sacked. That leaves the question: How does that happen? The short answer: He runs into Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron and gets de-horned, with an assist by Margot Robbie.
The Fox newsroom is a hive of careerist intrigue. As a seemingly endless supply of lithe, short-skirted Barbies circulates with their upscale coifs, host Megyn Kelly (Theron) sticks out like a sore thumb. By various means she has risen to the level of a bona fide ratings magnet, and thus is free to exercise her own editorial judgment in covering the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. In her case, that means she’s free to question the underhanded tactics of GOP hopeful Donald Trump (Fox’s favorite), and also that she no longer has to deal with a corporate environment that seemingly involves trips to the second floor to give blowjobs to the big boss. Headstrong and cutthroat, she’s beginning to be a pain in the ass to Ailes, but because of her popularity she’s sacrosanct.
Running along in tandem with Kelly on the broadcast fame treadmill is anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman), another revolutionary opposing Ailes’ “War on Women.” When she sues Ailes for sexual harassment, Kelly does the same and paranoia reigns. All the while, one side of Ailes’ personality enjoys the ratings this brouhaha is bringing in. But Big Boss Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) and his sons Lachlan (Ben Lawson) and James (Josh Lawson) have different goals, and become wary of Ailes’ bad publicity.
The wild card turns out to be the most prominent of the movie’s fictional characters, lower-level aspiring reporter Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a born-again true believer who’s ready to do what it takes to get noticed. She’s also younger. Corporate Barbie Kayla comes fully equipped with her own built-in honey trap wiles. Outside of work hours, Kayla’s lesbian girlfriend Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon) views the hubbub in the harem with a knowing eye. There’s a resistance going on within the alpha-male Fox fortress. The makeup women are probably at the heart of it. And the rest of the Ailes-Murdoch cheerleaders — including Ailes’ wife, newspaper publisher Beth Ailes (Connie Britton) — get outflanked.
Kidman and Theron bare their fangs early and often. It’s a treat to watch them operate, like lionesses on the veldt, stalking their prey. Lithgow is so right for the part of the king of corruption that we almost forget that Murdoch and family are the true supreme beings, and that in real life, News Corp and Fox are largely responsible for Trump and everything he represents. The slimy Greek chorus of Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff), Bill Shine (Mark Moses), Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon), and Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) sing their songs and disappear. While we’re chuckling at the crass carnival, let’s not forget that the late Ailes left Fox with $40 million of Murdoch money, and that the company has paid out many millions more to settle suits brought by unruly, uppity employees like Gretchen Carlson. Not much of a trade, really, especially when the viewers screw themselves by electing a faulty POTUS and women remain second-class citizens in Foxville. Funny and exhilarating as it is, the film is a placebo for an ache that seems as if it’s never going to go away. We can laugh for two hours at Bombshell, but the joke is ultimately on us.