'Bombshell' creates ferocious entertainment

This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure. Jonathan, who shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006, now lives in New York City.

“Bombshell,” the new film from director Jay Roach, portrays the institutionalized harassment that led to the rightful downfall of Fox News’ head Roger Ailes. Somewhere between an “issues” movie and a dark comedy - it’s closer to “Vice” than “Norma Rae” - the film strikes a quippy tone that makes for ferocious entertainment, even if its message ends up a bit muddled.

Roach has covered this terrain before with his HBO films “Recount” and “Game Change,” which capture then-current events with gusto while still pushing forward a broader thesis (in the case of “Game Change,” the role of celebrity in our current political moment). In “Bombshell” by focusing on the harassment experienced by Fox News personalities Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), as well as an aspiring producer (a composite character played by Margot Robbie), Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) attempt to connect these women’s individual stories - and their collective effort to stand up to power - into a broader comment on the #metoo movement. The parts may be stronger than the whole, which delivers a final salvo that’s something along the lines of “girl power” which feels more than a little hollow.

There’s been some critical handwringing around how dramatically sympathetic figures like Kelly and Carlson may be. Arguably, they’ve contributed to the polarization of discourse that has defined this political movement. That may be, but they are still humans, and as the film deftly portrays, they’re humans treated inhumanely. The key takeaway should be that gross behavior doesn’t have a political affiliation - it’s everywhere.

Given these potential pratfalls, the film’s overall success falls on the shoulders of its three leads, who all do transcendent work. Megyn Kelly is the most famous and controversial of the women featured, which deals Theron the toughest job. Luckily, as an actress, Theron has never shown much interest in likability - just think of the antihero she played in “Young Adult.” Here, her physical transformation as Kelly is uncanny, but it’s the cold, calculating and conflicted portrait that we remember. I can’t think of another actress who could pull this off.

Similarly, Kidman isn’t afraid to show her character’s flaws. Her Gretchen Carlson is a bit square and self-righteous, clearly wronged by institutionalized sexism, but also grasping for relevance as an old school, principled voice at an increasingly radical network. The film doesn’t have as much time for her - she feels frequently sidelined as we rush along - but it’s compelling work nonetheless. Robbie also does fine work as a fervent conservative who dreams of making it as a Fox News anchor, and quickly realizes the toxic entreaties required to make it on the air.

Streaming recommendation: “Game Change”

“Bombshell” director Jay Roach brought similar verve to his re-telling of the 2008 election, which primarily focuses on the McCain campaign’s selection of Sarah Palin for the ticket and the campaign pratfalls that ensue. Julianne Moore finds shades of pathos in an erratic character that easily could have gone the way of camp. Her portrayal alone is a reason to watch.

“Bombshell” is rated R for “sexual material and language throughout.” The film runs 1 hour, 48 minutes.