We hear Theron-as-Kelly before we see her in “Bombshell,” in which she acts as tour guide, institutional memory and sardonic critic of Fox News, where she worked for 13 years as part of a mission to correct a perceived liberal drift in television journalism. (“The news is like a ship. Take your hands off the wheel and it pulls left,” says Ailes, played here by a jowly, heavily padded John Lithgow.)
When Kelly appears on screen, it's clear that Theron has fully inhabited a character who, by the end of a welter of events that will include the campaign and election of Donald Trump, the implosion of one of the most powerful men in media and the beginnings of the #MeToo movement, still remains something of a cipher. But even without particularly penetrating insights into her inner drive and motivations, “Bombshell” is notable, if only, as Theron described the film at a screening in Washington last month, as the “origin story of where we find ourselves right now.”
That story is bracing and dispiriting, inspiring and deeply icky. Unfolding over several months in 2015 and 2016, “Bombshell” tells three parallel stories that are fascinating mostly because of the ways they pointedly fail to intersect. While Kelly endures the fallout from challenging Trump about his sexist remarks during the first Republican primary debate in 2015, another Fox anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is suffering her own indignity at the hands of their misogynistic boss and erstwhile mentor. “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause,” Ailes tells Carlson after she dares to appear on TV without makeup. Meanwhile, a new hire named Kayla (Margot Robbie) is making her wide-eyed way through a newsroom she can't wait to conquer as a self-described Evangelical millennial. “I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space,” she tells a Fox producer played with faintly amused cynicism by Kate McKinnon.
It's Kayla who has the most agonizing scene in “Bombshell,” when she is forced to audition for Ailes by twirling in front of him and agonizingly raising her skirt to show him her legs. “It's a visual medium,” he mumbles by way of justification. Even more heartbreaking is how each of these women is fighting her own lonely battle when a cadre of potential allies are just a Spanx-width away. Directed by Jay Roach (“Recount,” “Game Change”) from a script by Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”), “Bombshell” is crisp, lucid and pacey, not just when it's revisiting Kelly's showdown with Trump and Carlson's sexual harassment suit against Ailes, but when it's describing the Fox News formula to captivate older viewers: “frighten-titillate, frighten-titillate.” A scene in the women's dressing room — where a bevy of mostly blonde newscasters choose among a regimented array of form-fitting sheath dresses and spike-heeled shoes — plays less like something out of “Broadcast News” than “The Stepford Wives.”
As accomplished as its three lead performances are, “Bombshell” slips into caricature once or twice — Tony Plana’s theatrically mustached Geraldo Rivera and Richard Kind's slumped, scowling Rudolph W. Giuliani are two memorably cringeworthy cameos — and the filmmakers’ satirical disdain for Fox News and its political agenda occasionally feels catty rather than sharply incisive. As worthy as Kelly and Carlson's stories are, there's a film still to be made about how the network's “frighten-titillate” strategy fomented poisonous partisan rancor that has only grown more toxic in the past 20 years.
In that origin story of where we find ourselves right now, Kelly, Carlson and their colleagues would surely be portrayed with far more complexity — brave, perhaps even heroic but also complicit. For its part, “Bombshell” tells a crucial chapter of that larger tale with coolheaded style and heated indignation. Its aim might be narrow, but it hits the target.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual material and crude language throughout. 108 minutes.