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Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie star in Bombshell.

Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate

  • Bombshell
  • Directed by Jay Roach
  • Written by Charles Randolph
  • Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie
  • Classification R
  • 108 minutes

rating

2 out of 4 stars

Let’s face it: Bombshell, the movie about the women who brought down Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, has a marketing problem. Moviegoers inclined to cheer on crusading female broadcasters as they crush sexual harassment are probably not Fox viewers, while Fox viewers who might be expected to value these television hosts are probably not inclined to cheer on social crusaders. Perhaps it’s that conundrum that explains why Bombshell is so ambivalent and tepid as it attempts to fashion a tick-tock thriller from Ailes’s downfall.

Holiday movie guide: Reviews of films opening through the end of December

The plot revolves around Ailes (a wonderfully repellent John Lithgow in a body suit and prosthetics), of course, but more importantly around three women. One is Gretchen Carlson (a restrained Nicole Kidman), the veteran Fox host languishing on a daytime show because, according to the lawsuit she files after she’s fired, she rebuffed advances from her boss. Out on the street, she dares to go it alone and, with all her legal ducks in a row, sues not Fox, but Ailes personally.

John Lithgow is wonderfully repellent as former Fox News head Roger Ailes.

Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate

Will other women come forward and corroborate her story? The biggest question mark is the still-ascendant Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, indistinguishable from the original article). She’s highly valued by the network for her chutzpah in confronting outside-chance Republican candidate Donald Trump on his record with women – until he becomes the party’s presidential nominee.

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The difficulty here is that neither Carlson’s nor Kelly’s sexual harassment by Ailes is recent enough to feel particularly dramatic. Enter a fictional character. Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisil, an enthusiastic young evangelical who is thrilled to pieces that she is working for Fox. After she has wheedled her way into the chief fox’s den, she tells Ailes she would be “fricking phenomenal” on camera and then is humiliated to discover what it is Ailes means when he demands “loyalty” from the women he promotes.

No, the male talent never has to perform oral sex to obtain promotions. But as the repugnant Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) points out, the female hosts (shown in their palatial homes with their lovely children) have also benefited from the culture at Fox. That leaves director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph deeply puzzled as they expose a network that favours transparent desks – so you can see the women’s legs – and a costume room full of Spanx, falsies and tight dresses.

Apparently, we should sympathize with rather than judge the ambitious Kayla. The committed right-winger is happy to bat her eyelashes at Ailes, but also to have a one-night stand with a lesbian colleague so as to establish her liberal credentials with audiences. (A welcome Kate McKinnon brings some much needed levity as the closeted colleague briskly showing Kayla the ropes at work.)

Kate McKinnon, right, plays a closeted colleague showing Margot Robbie's Kayla the ropes in the Fox newsroom.

Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate

The confusion reaches its climax somewhere around the third act when Theron’s note-perfect imitation of the crystalline Kelly enters her dressing room at the Republican convention that will anoint Trump to find her charming little children waiting to surprise her. In a scene obviously calculated to humanize the rock-hard TV journalist, the darlings cluster around their doting mama – until their loving papa quickly passes them over to a waiting nanny. Realistic, to be sure, but are we supposed to like this woman or not?

Similarly, Kidman’s icily controlled version of Carlson doesn’t elicit much sympathy. That leaves it to Robbie’s younger character to tug at the heartstrings as the victim of gross and continuing sexual harassment – which she does rather well.

Still, it’s much simpler to boo and hiss at Ailes. The machinations in his camp – with particularly strong cameos from Connie Britton as his loyal wife, Beth, and Allison Janney as his resigned lawyer – are clearly articulated. Here, at last, as Ailes’s downfall approaches (and none other than Malcolm McDowell flashes across the screen in the role of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch), we can sense the tightening noose of tragedy.

Wisely, tastefully, director Roach never shows the actual sex on screen in a film in which the tensest scene is perhaps the one where Ailes starts by asking Kayla to “give me a twirl” because “it’s a visual medium.” But in the place of that horror, Roach hasn’t figured out how to play the spiralling social and political implications of Ailes’s actions. Kayla’s mentor tells her the Fox formula is to either titillate or terrify. Bombshell can’t quite manage to do either.

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Bombshell opens Dec. 20.

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