From the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, Jay Roach, and the writer of The Big Short, Charles Randolph, comes a dramatic biographical film about women’s empowerment. If that lead-in description seems off to you, well, I concur. The film it describes, Bombshell, is similarly mismatched in tone; it’s a celebration of Strong Women’s takedown of The Patriarchy, only as written by men while eliding both individual and national politics. Bombshell portrays a group of women successfully accuse Fox News head Roger Ailes (a very paunchy John Lithgow) of sexual harassment, resulting in his removal in July 2016. The film follows three women (two real, one fictional) as they navigate the toxic environment of Fox, one where men in business suits ogle while heavily makeup-ed women show some leg, all under the guise of good ol’ fashioned conservative values.
Formally thin and thematically shallow, Bombshell overcomes its middling direction and writing through the powerful performances from the trio of women: Nicole Kidman as ousted Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, Margot Robbie as eager producer Kayla Pospisil, a fictional composite of all the young woman harassed and abused, and Charlize Theron as former Fox News paragon, Megyn Kelly. If you’re not especially familiar with who these women are or what Fox News is all about, Bombshell offers an opening Big Short-esque explainer narrated to the audience by Theron-as-Kelly. These fourth-wall breaking asides to the camera, with their snarky and condescending tones, are a formal gesture which I frankly find more exhausting than amusing. Still, Kidman, Robbie, and Theron are fantastic actors, and Theron (covered in prosthetics) is being rightly celebrated for her immersive and affective portrayal as Kelly.
Where Bombshell implodes is in its tonal misfires and lack of delving into the political complexities of the situation. While ostensibly a drama, it often tries to veer into semi-comedic territory, particularly in its portrayal of Robbie’s character and the larger Fox environment. She’s a self-described evangelical Christian who doesn’t listen to secular music, a detail which seems to be present so we can poke fun at her ignorance. She’s also a lesbian (maybe?) and has a fellow lesbian pal, Jess (played by SNL’s Kate McKinnon), which is also played for laughs—a lesbian working at Fox News? How silly! There’s also a throwaway scene about an ousted former Fox anchor who tried to report the inappropriate behavior; we hear her internal monologue as she considers how to reject the employer who has just propositioned her about heading together to the hotel room. Yet what is certainly cringe-worthy and traumatic is played more like cringe comedy, as if the scene were serious, but not that serious. In this, Bombshell fails to be either smart satire or incisive political drama, which makes it just offensively banal. The dark realities that these women face—sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful men—are sometimes depicted as a laughing matter, which is a decidedly troubling position to uphold. Just as troubling is Bombshell‘s lack of true examination of the politics of fear and bigotry espoused at Fox News. As a semi–spoiler, the film ends with Roger Ailes being forced to step down from his position (although with a very large sum of money), ending with a sort of celebratory tone, as if all is well with the world. But we know what happened after the summer of 2016—we know that Fox News (Kelly included) promoted an ideology of fear and nationalism which contributed to the American election of a womanizing and abusive immoral fool who bragged on tape about his own sexual harassment triumphs.
In all this, Bombshell seems oblivious of its own errors, not unlike a leering or touchy man who says he’s just “being nice” to the women he harasses. As a prime example, in a scene between Kayla and Ailes in his office, he asks her to stand up and “do a twirl” for him, to which she obliges. He then asks her to hike up her skirt to let him see her legs. It’s an uncomfortable scene (as it should be) but the camera leers and ogles Robbie’s legs for a bit too long (not unlike Tarantino’s puerile camera in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) with Ailes, inviting us as audience to be “innocently” complicit in the sexual objectification of both Kayla and Robbie. In this, Bombshell reveals itself to be faux feminist, trying to have its cake and eat it too, celebrating the stories of victims while never truly holding accountable the larger issues of patriarchy, sexual objectification, and abuse, even (perhaps unknowingly) still perpetuating the same systemic sins.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6394270/