Superb Theron lights a fuse in ‘Bombshell’

Charlize Theron and John Lithgow in “Bombshell.”

Beauty slayed the beast is an old story, but it’s been revived and energized in Jay Roach’s defiantly entertaining “Bombshell.” The movie concerns the women of Fox News, whose allegations of sexual harassment brought down network CEO Roger Ailes in 2016.

Roach walks a tightrope, for as he presents the courage it took the women to topple their tyrannical boss, he offers the viewer women who are prickly, ambitious and self-indulgent. “I don’t care that you like me, only that you believe me,” one of them says.

It’s difficult to balance heroism depicted in characters who dare the viewer to disapprove of them, but Roach pulls it off by undercutting the moral compromises with cinematic style.

Jon Poll’s editing gives the movie a kinetic drive and Barry Ackroyd’s nimble camera glides through the Fox News offices as host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) explains to the viewer how Ailes hired attractive women with great legs to hook men on a 24-hour news channel. “This is why all the tables are see-through,” Kelly elaborates.

“Bombshell” eventually turns more sober as the details of Ailes’ toxic reign kick in. Roach’s style and tone shift to a documentary-like approach. Women try to find the nerve to speak up but are silenced. Friendly meetings with Ailes turn sinister. The movie’s quieter moments are the most difficult to watch.

Talk show host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is the first to come forward in earnest. She files a lawsuit against Ailes claiming he fired her after she rejected his advances. Kelly, for much of the movie, holds out as she performs a balancing act of her own: Bite the hand the made her a star at Fox or follow Carlson and go public with accusations of sexual harassment.

Margot Robbie is cast as the “evangelical millennial” Kayla Pospisil, a fictional character who embodies all the women wronged by Ailes. Her job interview with Ailes begins cheerfully and ends in a nightmare of fear and humiliation. It’s the movie’s finest, scariest moment.

A weakness of the movie is the introduction of Donald Trump as a secondary villain and his feud with Kelly. Trump went on television and accused Kelly of, as she put it, “anger menstruating,” when she moderated the Republican presidential debate. The sequence feels calculated to make a wider point about sex and politics, but the picture goes slack here and the scene never achieves its aim.

More successful is writer Charles Randolph’s treatment of the women’s political beliefs, which are presented in a convincing, matter-of-fact way. Another virtue is that the actors don’t go over the top into satire. These are credible, restrained performances.

Theron is amazing. She floods the character and completely disappears behind Kelly’s perma-blonde hair and freeze-dried smile. Her voice deepens and her gaze intensifies as the movie goes on. It’s an uncanny transformation. John Lithgow makes a memorable nemesis of Ailes. Jowly and piggish, Lithgow’s Ailes conducts his reign of terror by blending jocularity and manipulation.

“Bombshell” is a tough story to tell, but the refusal of the actors and filmmakers to downplay the highs that money, power and privilege mean to these women elicits an honest ethical ambiguity.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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