Sadly, BOMBSHELL is a bit of a bloodless affair. Despite assembling a powerhouse cast led by Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly with Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil, the film seems to skate over the surface of the story and never really gets down and dirty in what is a truly reprehensible down and dirty tale. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Carlson (who’s the one with all the dirt on Ailes – she recorded his lewd and lascivious overtures) signed a non-disclosure agreement at the end of the legal process that means she’s prevented from revealing what she really knows. (that’s not a spoiler... it’s history). Carlson has been quoted as saying she regrets the muzzle that NDA puts on her in terms of the real story being able to come out but, despite that, feels that Roach’s film version doesn’t quite get as close to the mark as the small screen version does.
But needing to tap-dance around the facts of Carlson’s story is just one of BOMBSHELL's problems. The real trouble seems to be in how the story is realised under Jay Roach’s direction. After a string of comedy successes including the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, Roach had a tilt at more serious subject matter with Trumbo (2015) which, in my view, suffers from a similar bloodlessness. Unlike the director, Adam McKay, who took a similar path from silly comedies to serious social and political stories, Roach doesn’t seem to be able to communicate as well with the serious stuff as he does with the silly stuff. McKay really excelled in the serious stuff of The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). In McKay’s movies, there’s an anger and outrage that courses through the veins of his storytelling that is only sharpened by the razor wit of their comedic devices. Roach seems like he’s reaching for something akin to this but, in the end, settles for just joining the dots of the story. The reason for drawing this analogy isn’t just because of the similar paths taken by the two directors. BOMBSHELL is written by Charles Randolph who also wrote the great screenplay for McKay’s The Big Short, so he knows how to tell a complex, political story and he knows how to do it with a witty and acerbic style. But not so much here. Whether the fault lies in the screenplay (I haven’t read it) or in the way the screenplay is brought to the screen, BOMBSHELL has none of the masterful storytelling technique that Randolph’s other screenplay is drenched in. True, there are fleeting moments of this style with a bit of quirk here and there and the occasional direct address to the camera, but these flashed aren’t followed through to the rest of the film and only serve to remind us what we’re missing out on.
The most authentic moment on screen is the vox-poppy appearance of a series of real women who have real stories to tell about sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s a neat way of getting around the fact that Carlson can’t ‘testify’ and is the sequence that, for me at least, reaches the audience more powerfully than anything else in the film.
This is not to say that the performances aren’t terrific. All three women bring a power to the screen that would have been so much more effective if the film had let them off the leash; if they could just go to town on the story. John Lithgow is suitably creepy and oily as Ailes although Crowe on the small screen trumps him for capturing a true horror of chauvinism and despotism that lies not very far beneath the surface of his skin. It’s so disappointing that Bombshell wasn’t able to rise to the opportunity it had within its grasp. It’s an important story and a timely parable for the way we need to shine a light on the terrible things that some men have got away with for too long. In the end, what Bombshell did was prompt me to re-assess my feelings about The Loudest Voice. Perhaps it was a better screen experience than I gave it credit for.