Charlize Theron comes out blazing in Bombshell. But the first thing you notice about her deep-dive performance as former Fox News host Megyn Kelly is that you don’t see Theron at all. Through voice, posture, wardrobe, and the genius prosthetic makeup of Kazu Hiro, Theron is Kelly. It’s a marvel of transformation. And it would be little more than a dazzling distraction if Theron didn’t also bring complexity to this conservative-media star who found the guts to call out her boss, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (a superb John Lithgow), for sexually harassing female journalists.
Kelly didn’t get there first. That honor goes to her Fox colleague Gretchen Carlson — Nicole Kidman, showing righteous anger simmering beneath Carlson’s pristine blonde bob and so-called “News Barbie” makeup. It was Carlson who sued Ailes, thereby helping to end the reign of the sleaze prophet of his time, a man who liked to bring female employees into his private office and ask them to twirl. “Television is a visual medium,” he’d say with a leer.
Cheers, too, for Margot Robbie as Fox newbie Kayla Pospisil, a composite character who represents many of the women Ailes promised to “help” as they navigated their careers. The scene in which he demands that this evangelical Fox fan-girl raise her skirt higher and higher is more shocking than a horror movie. And Robbie, standing in for so many people who felt that taking the abuse was the only way to keep a job, cuts to the core of why women are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Bombshell portrays some women at the network as being (justifiably) afraid to rock the boat. Jess Carr (a sly Kate McKinnon), a lesbian producer, swallows her pride and her sense of identity in order to stay employed. And even Kelly is a touch slow to find her courage. In 2016, when the film begins, her star power is cemented during a presidential debate in which she throws shade at candidate Donald Trump for his debasement of women. It would take much longer for her to read the riot act to Ailes or to join the fight with Carlson, who’d been demoted at Fox for not playing Ailes’ game. Theron makes us feel the fear running through Kelly when she later throws softballs at Trump during a one-on-interview, a decision that doesn’t sit well with her husband, Doug (Mark Duplass), or her own sense of journalistic duty.
This headline-making story continues to be told from numerous vantage points — Russell Crowe brilliantly played Ailes in the Showtime series The Loudest Voice, which had the luxury of stretching out over seven episodes to skewer the scope of the Ailes plague. But Bombshell rightly gives women pride of place in the gladiatorial arena. After all, it wasn’t men who finally slayed the beast. Three extraordinary actors, directed with artful purpose by Jay Roach (HBO’s Recount, Game Change and All the Way) from a slashing script by Charles Randolph (The Big Short), make Bombshell an explosive piece of entertainment that also means to make a difference. Listen up.