Who Exactly is the Audience for ‘Bombshell’?
Bombshell, the new film about the female Fox News anchors who took down their boss, Roger Ailes, for sexually harassing them should be more exciting than it is. The film suffers from an identity crisis. Is it because a male screenwriter and director, Charles Randolph and Jay Roach, are trying to tell a story about women and not quite getting it right? Quite possibly. My takeaway from the film is that any environment run by men is going to devalue the women who work in it. It feels like that’s what happened in the storytelling as well.
BOMBSHELL ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: Charles Randolph
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate McKinnon, John Lithgow
Running time: 108 min
The film starts with a narrative device. There are three main female characters in the story: Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron, Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, and a fictional composite character named Kayla played by the wonderful, vulnerable Margot Robbie. They each take a turn at narrating, introducing us to the inner workings of Fox News. Mostly it’s voiceover, but occasionally the characters pop out of their conversation in-scene and address the camera a la I, Tonya, but not consistently enough to be effective. It’s possible they could have gotten the narration bit to work, but it disappeared from the film partway through, as if the producers gave up on it.
Bombshell, and fact-checking, make it clear that Gretchen Carlson was the first woman to come forward with allegations against Ailes, but her story didn’t get much traction until Megyn made her own accusations and encouraged other Fox News employees to do the same. According to a Washington Post article, there’s real-life conflict around Megyn getting credit for a movement Gretchen started. The film perpetuates this, centering the storytelling around Megyn as heroine.
The acting is all top-notch. John Lithgow is appropriately creepy, though less gross and monstrous than I imagine the real Roger Ailes to be. Between the makeup and the acting, Charlize Theron morphs into Megyn Kelly in an unsettling and effective way. Kate McKinnon does a solid turn as a closeted lesbian working in the newsroom. I appreciated that the sexual harassment wasn’t on display to any titillating effect. There’s a very uncomfortable scene with Ailes asking Kayla to show him her legs. Because of this violation, Kayla becomes the character we feel for the most. The other women have moved past their trauma. She’s in the middle of it. While Bombshell portrays Megyn Kelly as a sympathetic character overall, it never made me like her or care about her personally. Maybe, knowing who she is, I wasn’t going to.
Slick, Polished, Cinematically Uninteresting
Movies made to be Oscar contenders are always frustrating. They’re slick, polished, and often cinematically uninteresting. They play it safe and don’t stray far from the formulas that have won so many Oscars in the past. Bombshell checks all these boxes. Much like Fox News itself, Bombshell is all gloss and not enough substance. It has solid performances and Theron’s portrayal of Kelly is uncanny, but it doesn’t tax anyone’s talents into an Oscar-worthy place.
So many famous people appear in smallish roles that it’s actually distracting; it took me out of the story. Filmmakers forget the value of lesser-known actors who are more than capable of giving excellent performances without making the audience spend five minutes figuring out what TV show they’ve seen them in. Give some bald Italian guy the opportunity to play Giuliani instead of having Richard Kind sit in hair and make-up for god knows how many hours and still look like Richard Kind. Kevin Dorff did look remarkably like Bill O’Reilly. The hair and make-up department earned their pay, and maybe an Oscar nod, for him and Charlize’s make-up alone.
Bombshell ends with the typical printed epilogue about how events continued to unfold in real life, past the movie’s timeline. The many women who brought suit against Ailes and O’Reilly were awarded a total of 50 million dollars. Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were given a total of 65 million dollars in severance. The women were compensated some for the abuse they suffered, and the men were rewarded for being abusers. The filmmakers tried to put a nice spin on it, in a “we won’t let this happen again,” vein, but it fell flat. Charlize Theron has a line about the network pitting women against one another so that they won’t come together and fight their oppression, and there’s no indication that that culture won’t persist and cover up more crimes.
I wonder who the production team imagined would want to see Bombshell. Did they think it would be liberals seeking schadenfreude? If so, it was an unsatisfying offering. Did they think it would be women who watch Fox News? Or the wives of men who watch Fox News? If that’s indeed part of this film’s tiny audience, Roach really missed the opportunity to reflect back the harm conservative white women with a public platform, or even a vote, can do. News anchors like Megyn Kelly have allowed themselves to be tools of the patriarchy. They’re complicit in all that holds women down. There was an opportunity here to really show that, and the men in charge of this film passed it up. The toppling of Roger Ailes only looks like justice because the alternative is doing nothing at all.