At the dawn of #MeToo, before the Harvey Weinstein scandal had properly blown up, there was Roger Ailes and Fox News. The conservative media mogul and one of the most powerful men in politics saw sexual harassment allegations that hit the right-wing network like a grenade, ending his ouster as CEO in a matter of weeks. A watershed moment, it was led by two of the network’s most prominent stars: Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, who endured and even furthered racist, sexist attitudes for years as long as it benefitted them. So how does the cleverly-titled Bombshell go about making heroines out of people who, presented from a different angle, would be pretty damned unlikable? Well, you just don’t deal with all that hypocrisy stuff.
Bombshell is an infuriating movie because there’s a more potent story to tell than the one Game Change director Jay Roach and The Big Short writer Charles Randolph choose. Not so much a deep dive into the sexist all-boys-club that was Fox News, it’s a skimming of the surface that refuses to really look at the two women who brought Ailes low because that would be inconvenient. If you’re going to tell THIS story, which was so integral to our progress in protecting women from unsafe work environments, it should be a little bit uncomfortable. But Bombshell is more interested in being entertaining than relevant, a near-sighted view that will have you only remember how damned perfect Charlize Theron’s makeup was as Megyn Kelly.
And to be fair, it is pretty damned perfect. Theron does more than just get a prosthetic nose slapped on; it’s about attitude and speech patterns. Theron, whose ability to shapeshift stretches all the way back to her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, is so thoroughly Kelly in voice and demeanor that you sometimes forget this isn’t some Fox News documentary. It’s especially true during that unforgettable moment when Theron took on Trump at the Republican debate for his offensive remarks towards women.
That moment, and what drove Kelly to suddenly voice opinions she knew would fly directly in the face of Trump and the bulk of the Fox News viewership is what Bombshell needed to tackle. But any exploration of feminism within the halls of the extreme right’s propaganda machine is dealt with in the broadest of strokes, rendering it meaningless. It does a disservice to the portrayal of Kelly, as well, because it looks like her sudden unpopularity with the mostly-male Fox demographic is what drove her to side with Carlson’s cause against Aisles (played with inhuman gusto by John Lithgow).
Nicole Kidman has a little more to work with as Gretchen Carlson, the one who really got the ball rolling. We see the former Fox & Friends co-host cope quietly with her two dim-wit dude colleagues every time they make a sexist remark, which turns out to be pretty often. Eventually, she progresses to walking off the set, then getting demoted with her own show in a nightmare timeslot, only to be insulted for doing segments deemed too feminist or not sexy enough. “Nobody wants to see a middle-aged woman sweat”, Ailes informs her, as if that’s just some shit everybody knows. When Carlson finally decides to stand up for herself by suing Fox News there’s legitimate trepidation that no other women will come to her support. To Roach and Randolph’s credit they paint a horrific enough picture that we can understand why. All one needs is to see conservative firebrand Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) forcing employees to wear pro-Ailes t-shirts to get an idea how dire the situation was.
Randolph, who has defended in interviews this story being told by a couple of men, unsurprisingly gets the most mileage from the fictional Kayla Popsipil, played by a doe-eyed Margot Robbie. For liberals who wonder how anybody ends up that deep in the Fox News bubble, Kayla is basically our window into that. While Kayla has goals of being a hotshot producer on a top-rated show, leading to her departure from Carlson over to The Bill O’Reilly Show, she isn’t just in love with the fame. A woman of deep religious background (She admits to wearing extremely tight “church jeans” on Sundays), Kayla’s entire family watches Fox News. It’s as true as apple pie and Texas football. Just being part of the network is an honor. So we understand her confusion and horror when Ailes begins inviting her up to his office for little pep talks that turn into career promises, but only if she shows him some gratitude. These scenes are smartly played to capture how isolated these women must feel, trapped in the powerful Ailes’ presence.
“Ask yourself what would scare your grandmother and piss off your grandfather. That’s a Fox story.”
Sharp, intentionally-infuriating jokes like that keep Bombshell funny and easy to watch, though. We’re asked to chuckle at all of the most ridiculous “insights” that spring from conservative media. Some they actually believe are true, like Megyn Kelly’s infamous “Santa’s just white”, and others that are fuel to piss off those God-hating libs. But laugh is all we’re asked to do. Sure, it’s kinda funny when a character explains why all of the desks are see-through and the women only allowed to wear short dresses, but why didn’t anybody speak up about how disgusting that is as a practice? Kate McKinnon lightens the mood as Jess Carr, a gay show producer hiding her sexuality and liberal ideology because, well, it wouldn’t do a heck of a lot for her career. Not at Fox News, anyway. Even as comic relief, Jess’s situation is a warped reflection of the silence that allowed such a rotten culture to fester and grow.
It’s a wrong move to think one can simply ‘Big Short’ this story; skirt around the edges of an overwhelming and complicated topic, throw a few jokes at it, and that’s enough. There’s nothing explosive you’re going to get out of Bombshell; it hits with all of the impact of a water balloon.