Hot on the heels of its limited release and early awards recognition for its key players, “Bombshell” opens wide at the box office Friday.
“Hot on the heels” may not be the most appropriate metaphor to describe the story of female employees at Fox News Channel who collectively brought down the dictatorial reign of the conservative cable network’s chief architect, Roger Ailes. Ailes died in 2017 shortly after his ignoble fall from power — and just months before the #MeToo movement exploded with the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Those who have seen the film, written by Charles Randolph and directed by Jay Roach, have almost unilaterally remarked on the transition of its producer and star Charlize Theron into the character of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who also famously sparred with Donald Trump as she moderated a presidential debate. (Theron has credited special effects makeup artist Kazu Hiro for his work with prosthetics and contact lenses to make her into practically a ringer for Kelly.)
But the larger picture seeks to tell the story of the culture of sexual harassment that was pervasive within the organization and how other women including Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, eventually fought back.
Margot Robbie plays a composite character named Kayla Pospisil, an ambitious young associate producer wanting to rise through the ranks, but having to “twirl” for Ailes in his private office as part of gaining any promotion.
Theron, Robbie and Kidman have already been recognized with awards nominations from several quarters, including the Golden Globes and Critics Choice, as well as receiving a nod for best cast in a motion picture from the Screen Actors Guild.
Supporting players include John Lithgow as Ailes and actors including Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Kate McKinnon and Malcolm McDowell, who portrays Rupert Murdoch.
Industry screenings of the film for academy, guild and critics’ groups started last month. After a packed screening at a theater in Beverly Hills in which a number of people were turned away at the door, all the film’s principals appeared on stage for a Q&A session afterward.
Theron noted that pre-production was under way before the Weinstein story blew up more than two years ago and said she quickly realized how much more nuanced the story about Fox News was.
As has already been well-documented, there were many challenges in bringing the story to the screen, most significantly, the funding falling out at the very last minute.
“We had to find financing all over again,” Theron recalled. “I was gob-smacked. We had an incredible cast that was scheduled down to the hour because these ladies work a lot. The material was so good and so enticing but Bron stepped up and then Lionsgate. I aged five years in that day. Sometimes you have to put on your flak jacket and lean into it. Sometimes the universe takes over and Jesus takes the wheel. So here we are. You’re welcome,” she said, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Theron, who did not meet Kelly, said she spent two months deciphering how to play the character. “The footage of her was always lawyer-y, so you have to struggle to determine the underlying emotions. Watching the debates I got my head around her voice and it became clearer how she struggled and coped. That’s when I emotionally tapped into her. Obviously I’m liberal but I started seeing similarities — ambition, drive — things that have been weaponized against me.”
Kidman talked about the power of women coming together and how she responded immediately to Theron’s request for her to play Carlson, an anchor who had been demoted to a less desirable time slot by Ailes and then filed a sexual harassment suit against him in July 2016.
“Gretchen puts up a shield but underneath it there are other things going on. She had to be lonely, scared and vulnerable. Sometimes we see her through her children. The thought that she would be supported and wasn’t was terrifying. I feel for her,” she said.
Kidman also highlighted the men, led by Roach and Randolph, who were willing to go for it with their full support and collaboration with the female producers and talent, bowing to their wishes not to sanitize scenes — and the level of discomfort — dramatizing Ailes in his private office with Kayla and other women. “It’s a wonderful thing to present to the world. Hopefully it’s powerful, entertaining and moving and pulls you in,” she said about the film.
“I felt like I had to be a part of it no matter the circumstances,” said Robbie. “It was incredibly important to me. I feel a responsibility even though she isn’t a real person, but being an amalgamation makes her even more real in a way. I feel like I’ve been hearing stories like this for forever.”
“It was a great story with a great predicament,” said Roach. “I was moved by the women and what it felt like for them working in a conservative organization to have to take on Roger Ailes. Megyn had more power, Gretchen had less and Kayla even less, and that’s part of what made the story so compelling.”
“When we heard that Roger would ask them to come into his office and give him a spin we could feel the humiliation — and we felt outrage,” Roach said. “Young women just wanted to work. The script validated our research. Kayla represents that.”
“We have to identify the habitual minimizing of women in these situations and go through that, even as I was interrogating my own hesitancy about showing Ailes leering at them,” he noted.
As the screenwriter, Randolph said what most surprised him was how human the women at Fox News were, despite their political leanings and how much they were in line with the cable channel’s philosophies.
The stars also gave props to other cast members including Lithgow, Britton, Janney and McKinnon.
“It’s all about the actors and their alchemy,” said Randolph.
But it’s really the story of how one of the most powerful titans in media was toppled by those who had finally had enough, an event that opened a floodgate of awareness of the depths of depravity, discrimination and humiliation some women in the workplace have had to endure as they pursue their careers.