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Bombshell Entertains but Settles for Recounting the News About the Newscasters

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As far as I know, it is purely coincidental that the fall of political operative and Fox News creator and chairman Roger Ailes occurred almost simultaneously with the 2016 Republican National Convention, after a campaign year that had included a very public feud between one of his network's biggest stars, Megyn Kelly, and a certain spray-tanned misogynist candidate. Bombshell takes that lucky twist and runs with it, using both stories to create a pointed satire of sexual politics, the carnivalesque nature of television news and the grotesque old-boys network that connect them.

Kelly, played by Charlize Theron, is at the center of the film, but it's another Fox host (and former Miss America) who puts things in motion. On July 6, 2016, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) filed a suit against Ailes, claiming that she had been fired from the network for rejecting his sexual advances. Carlson's suit looms heavily over the Fox studio, where staff and on-air personalities scramble to defend their boss; Kelly, nearing the end of her contract and targeted by conservatives goaded by the candidate she had reportedly referred to as "Voldemort," was conspicuously silent. With Carlson staying in the background and Kelly starting to realize the scale of Ailes' transgressions, the film adds Margot Robbie as a composite of various pretty young things who came to New York to work in television and fell into his path. Ailes himself, gleefully played by John Lithgow, is a monstrous presence throughout, wallowing in self-pity and lamenting that he's been compared (not inaccurately) to Jabba the Hutt.

Jay Roach is best known for his comedies (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) but has more recently dived into political subjects. He takes a lively run through the details, sometimes having Theron address the camera directly to raise a point or cutting to real-life footage of the figures, making this a lighter version of Adam McKay's more didactic political comedy. (Screenwriter Charles Randolph co-wrote McKay's The Big Short.) The performances, especially those of Theron, Robbie and Lithgow, are exceptional and the make-up that turns them into familiar news figures (crafted by the same team that gave Gary Oldman Churchill's face in Darkest Hour) is simply uncanny. Despite its headline-based subject, Roach adds light, surreal touches. There's a fairy tale quality to the film, filled with beautiful princesses facing threats from a mischievous, malicious troll, while the many behind-the-camera scenes of Fox personalities getting dressed and preparing their on-camera looks take on a dream-like quality – an unusual crossing of The Stepford Wives and Playboy After Dark.

Bombshell is brisk and entertaining but ultimately fails to do much more than sum up the news stories the audience has probably already seen. Perhaps because it trades so heavily in celebrity (in addition to the principals, there are appearances by Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani, Bill O'Reilly and a handful of others who I might have recognized if I had ever watched Fox News) and plays out in such a rarefied terrain, it's hard to feel much sympathy for Kelly, who largely remains aloof from the Ailes controversy. The film raises real and important issues about sexual harassment, but assigning the role of civil rights champion to Kelly (this is the woman who indignantly insisted that Jesus and Santa Claus were white men, endorsed the use of pepper spray on protesters because it was "a food product, essentially" and lost her post-Fox NBC show for defending blackface) threatens to turn it into a media-driven version of a first world problem.