1 Hr., 49 Mins.
Bombshell January 13, 2020
n a recent interview with the New York Times, actress Charlize Theron, who plays conservative former news anchor Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, a new movie about the women who exposed Fox News head Roger Ailes for sexually harassing them, stresses that the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly politics of its heroines. “There are things [Kelly] has said that I’ve definitely had issues with,” Theron said. “But it doesn’t invalidate how I
feel about her struggle. Avoiding all of that stuff to get an emotional arc out of her character, I just didn’t want to be a part of that.”
While Bombshell doesn’t altogether ignore the ideologies rampant among Fox News figureheads, the film is more committed to glossing over truths and selective veracity. It will have on-air scenes that revolve around TV-show host Gretchen Carlson (who is one of the leading players in Bombshell and is played by Nicole Kidman) telling audiences that she’s supportive of gun control and showing off a makeup-free face in one segment to take a stand against objectification. But the feature doesn’t mention at all the transphobia, homophobia, and racism Carlson spewed through her platform.
There’s an allusion or two to this. Carlson at one point in the film is in the produce section of a grocery store and a fellow shopper tells her that she thinks what Fox News is doing is disgusting. But the movie concentrates so much on the more traditionally gallant characteristics of her and the other women prominently spotlit in Bombshell that the implicit message is that the horrible stuff they’ve espoused isn’t as bad as we might have remembered, and that maybe it shouldn’t matter that much anyway, even in a movie aiming to tell us an ostensibly true story about them. To paraphrase Buzzfeed’s Pier Dominguez, who wrote more at length about the film’s failures, by choosing to almost exclusively look at gender issues while minimizing or outright shutting out intersecting issues of class and race, the feature gives us a simplistic empowerment narrative.
Theron’s comment reads like someone patting themselves on the back for something they didn’t entirely earn — like someone talking about how they’ve just baked a cake to die for but have in actuality have only cracked a few eggs. (She co-produced.) Bombshell might have been a compelling and more genuine-feeling movie if it showed a vested interest in really grappling with one of its central complications: that it’s humanizing women who for a living have regularly called for the dehumanization of others.
Director Jay Roach recently told Uproxx that one of the main points of Bombshell was to show that sexual harassment is a nonpartisan issue. (No shit.) But this nonpartisan fixation on Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph’s parts comes to the film’s detriment. “To tell this story, the film has to reckon with the political incoherence intrinsic to the professional ambitions of right-wing women, who believe they should be treated equally, while deriding the hopes and demands that others make for equality,” Sarah Jones of The New Republic wrote. The movie doesn’t do that. Most of the time, it’s sandpapering the foulest aspects of these women and their job requirements to make the movie as digestible as possible. This combination of timidity and inaccuracy instilled in me a lot of anger. But it’s undoubted that Roach and co.’s craftsmanship, which additionally rankly uses The Big Short (2015)’s smug “explainer” structure, works for some. At the fairly packed screening I went to the other night, most members of the audence clapped as the credits rolled.
Pospisil, who's young, conservative, and devoutly religious, has just been hired by the network and is hoping to eventually garner a role akin to Kelly’s or Carlson’s.
Sexual harassment is unfortunately what will unite them, though there's only one moment in the movie where the women are together. In it, they’re standing uncomfortably and silently in an elevator, apparently en route to the office of Ailes (played here by an unrecognizable, heavily makeuped John Lithgow). One afternoon, in Ailes’ den, a talk between Ailes and Pospisil about a potential promotion turns ominous. After some friendly chatter, the former abruptly asks the latter to stand up and spin around for him (“It’s a visual medium,” he says of television) and then hike up her skirt so that he can get a better look at her legs. (Ailes has a leg thing — that’s why the tables on chat shows are transparent and why all the women anchors wear such short dresses.) In this scene, which is sensitively rendered and one of the films most impactful, innocence is lost in a matter of a few minutes. We learn that Pospisil is also closeted (she has a brief affair with a secretly lesbian-slash-Hillary-supporting co-worker played by Kate McKinnon), which makes her feel doubly unsafe at the network.
Just as Pospisil is trying to make professional advances, Carlson is ousted from her job. Then she sues Ailes for sexual harassment — something she has been suffering for years and planned on doing even before her firing. “More women will come forward,” she reassures her lawyers after making her final decision.
The questions Kelly faces as a result of Carlson’s announcement is one of the film’s chief quandaries. Kelly, too, was sexually harassed by Ailes (the brunt of her experiences came at the beginning of her career), but she isn’t sure about coming forward. Her notoriety is rising. She doesn’t want to be viewed as a victim. Plus, Kelly likes Ailes. But she also knows that as a journalist more and more interested in reporting on women’s issues, it might be disingenuous of her not to speak up and stand in solidarity with Carlson. Eventually Kelly will relent; the movie suggests, as it inches toward its finale, that once Ailes is officially gone, Fox News might be a happier, more accepting place. (Then Rupert Murdoch, portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, appears and takes away any of the reassurance the characters temporarily felt.)
Nothing is significantly explored in Bombshell; it’s too feeble to really dig into the numerous moral and social dilemmas interacting with each other. It’s a missed opportunity, and in the process diminishes great work from Theron and Robbie. Theron again disappears into a role; when you squint, it’s like you’re in the room with Megyn Kelly. And Robbie, despite playing a character made to be sympathetic for a handful of additional reasons that should be but aren’t examined, is affecting as a young woman struggling to navigate the toxicity. (Even though she’s the impetus for the movie’s story, Carlson is so blandly written that Kidman is not able to do very much with the part.) The actresses seem to understand the fascinating, vexing contradictions of their characters. When they’re briefly brought to the center (like in a tense moment during which Kelly asks Pospisil if she’s been harassed by Ailes and things escalate to a point where Kelly leaves the room calling Pospisil a “snowflake”), you can sense a certain conviction.
In a movie like Bombshell, flashes of what seems to be sincerity or smart critical thinking are not enough. Fox News is rightfully lambasted for bending truths like Silly Putty to complement the ideologies of its right-wing on-air personalities and audience base. Bombshell isn’t pandering to conservatism. But it’s ironic that in a cinematic exposé seeking to reveal dark truths, reality is also cynically being warped to better suit a narrative. C-
ombshell begins in 2016 and focuses on three characters: mutated versions of Kelly and Carlson and a fictional composite character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). The women are in a moment of transition as the film opens. Kelly is on the rise as a crossover star after challenging Donald Trump on his misogyny at the 2016
Republican debate. Carlson’s show is slipping in the ratings. And