There's a vital story at the heart of this dramatisation of Fox News' sexual harassment scandal, but this star-studded drama is an empty shell of a #MeToo movie.
January 16, 2020
Playing two women caught in the climate of sexual harassment that engulfed Fox News under former CEO Roger Ailes, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie both turn in stellar — and now Oscar-nominated — performances in Bombshell. Aided by noticeable facial prosthetics, Theron steps into the shoes of real-life TV personality Megyn Kelly, serving up a pulsating vein of steeliness in every scene. As a fictional producer who calls herself an "influencer in the Jesus space" and an "evangelical millennial", Robbie's Kayla Pospisil possesses softer edges but still sports plenty of inner grit — especially when she summons up the guts to put her self-respect first, rather than her desire to feature on-camera on the right-wing network. But much like the unease that plagues both women until they decide to speak out, something definitely isn't right in the film that tells their tales.
Bombshell is the slick, shiny version of this ripped-from-the-headlines story, which earned global attention when it broke back in 2016. Airbrushed to buffer away blemishes and avoid tricky spots, it's watered down to deliver an easy, glossy, simplified narrative. It doesn't help that 2019's Russell Crowe-starring The Loudest Voice already brought the same minutiae to the small screen — and in far greater detail, as you'd expect in a seven-part mini-series compared to a 109-minute movie. That said, Bombshell really isn't interested in diving as deep as its predecessor. Instead, it wants to make a feisty flick about kick-ass women fighting back in a male-dominated realm.
Fight back, Kelly did — although not at first. As the film unpacks, fellow anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) leads the charge and initially suffers the consequences, going public about her inappropriate dealings with Ailes (a cartoonish John Lithgow) by suing him personally. Despite the head honcho's protests of innocence to Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) and sons Lachlan and James (Ben and Josh Lawson), more women share their stories. Director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) explore this, as well as Kelly's apprehension to join the chorus and Pospisil's experiences as a young, ambitious woman eager to score her big on-screen break. And yet, by championing these efforts but barely delving into Fox News' status as a conservative propaganda machine, Bombshell proves an empty shell of a #MeToo movie.
The treatment that Kelly and Carlson (and the real-life women that Pospisil represents) received at the hands of Ailes — yes, literally — is infuriating and unacceptable, as all accounts of men exerting power over women for their own gratification are. Their ordeal doesn't just hark back to one man, though; it's inescapably intertwined with Fox News and the agenda it serves — notions that are scarcely considered here. Roach and Randolph hint at the network's public standing, illustrating the wider world's reaction to its political leanings via a woman who insults Carlson in a supermarket. The film paints Ailes as feverish about pushing the Republican party's perspective and currying favour with Donald Trump during the lead up to the 2016 election, even when the future president tweets sexist comments about Kelly. And, it lays bare the TV station's misogynistic internal culture, where women are forced to wear short skirts and sit behind clear desks. Still, it all feels like lip service in a movie that merely depicts, rather than dissects.
If one was feeling generous, you could assume the film's powers-that-be just expect that everyone already knows Fox News' reputation, and the perspectives it pedals. Being realistic, however, Bombshell seems happy to brush past the network's toxic on-air views — because contemplating them in-depth means adding shades of grey that this visually bright feature is keen to avoid. Ailes is a clearcut villain, and deserves the scorn he's served, of course. But ignoring the fact that Kelly, Carlson and their fellow female Fox News employees all buy into a conservative agenda where behaviour like Ailes' continually festers, and do so because they share the same political views, means that Bombshell ignores the broader context that helped lecherous acts prosper at the network.
Yes, it's an immensely complicated situation — but Bombshell rarely treats it as such, or recognises much in the way of texture. While Kate McKinnon is memorable as a Hillary Clinton-supporting lesbian who remains closeted about both preferences at Fox News, that's another case of the movie barely dipping its toes into more complex territory. Perhaps the film's skin-deep approach shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing that Roach also directed all three Austin Powers flicks and the first two Meet the Parents movies. Bombshell certainly tries to keep its tone light and sometimes even farcical, even though it deals with such heavy matters. Alas, what results is the kind of movie you'd expect given this tellingly glib piece of closing voice-over — one where its unambiguously heroic protagonists "got the Murdochs to put the rights of women above profits, however temporarily".