When Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours in 2003 I was mildly confounded. It seemed banging prosthetics on your face and looking different was being lauded as good acting.
I had echoes later that year when much was made of Charlize Theron’s almost unrecognizable turn as murderer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (although to be fair, she almost made me wet my pants with fear in that film).
And here I am 16 years later, reminded of the same sentiment when I am looking at both women’s prosthetic-laden faces in Bombshell.
For some reason when people alter their visage on the big screen they automatically get ‘Oscar buzz’. That term has been mumbled about this film since the trailer launched and, frankly, it’s a bit of a red herring.
Because while there are some excellent performances in it, the film itself doesn’t soar. As a friend said when I told him I was seeing Bombshell, “I’ve heard it’s fine without being great” and this is a perfect summary.
Now, spoiler alert: the script is based on the accounts of several women at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, who exposed CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.
Nicole Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, the on-air talent who launched a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2016 after refusing Ailes’ advances and seeing her career take a nose-dive as a result.
For her case to have any traction she needed other women to come forward with their own stories. High profile presenter Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who made headlines when she broke protocol and took Donald Trump to task over his derogatory comments about women, eventually shared her own story of harassment.
As you’ll know from the plentiful promo posters, a third (fictional) character rounds out the trio. Margot Robbie plays a young wannabe presenter coming up through the ranks, who is next in line to receive Ailes’ unwanted attentions.
It’s a worthy story that is being told, and director Jay Roach has some effective moves. Throughout the film he has incorporated archival footage, photos and direct quotes from the stream of women who ended up speaking out about the abuse.
You never forget this is a story based on fact, and that has real impact.
There are also some powerful performances. Both Theron and Robbie have been nominated for Academy Awards (and a slew of others), and Robbie in particular does a great job as the ambitious, Jesus-loving youngling who has always dreamed of being on Fox News.
Watching her ambition slowly crumble as the sexual advances escalate is physically uncomfortable.
Credit also to John Lithgow, who is amazing as the predatory, cantankerous Ailes.
On paper this film should work, given the performances and the current social climate. At a time when the Murdoch media is being heavily criticized for its politicized coverage of the Australian bushfires, a big screen depiction of the biased way Fox News presented Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a pertinent insight.
But it never really gives you the fire in your belly that it should. And that’s because it feels a little confused. On one hand there’s an empowering soundtrack and fist-pumping one liners from the ladies.
The flavor is very much, ‘Yay the women won, look what happens when you band together’.
But as critic Peter Bradshaw writes, the filmmakers seems unable to decide if its heroines are compromised through having been loyal Fox staffers. He also argues the film “pulls its hardest punches” in portraying Rupert Murdoch as the savior who comes to the rescue of the distressed female employees.
Maybe it doesn’t land in part because the real life story isn’t a perfect victory of good over evil. As the film points out in the conclusion, Fox paid $20m in damages to Gretchen Carlson. Her harasser, Ailes, received double that in severance.
And with that, the triumphant tale we’re being told ends with a dull thud, instead of a bang.