Bombshell is absolute dynamite. Featuring an all-star cast and a script that bites with caustic wit, the film does for the #MeToo movement what The Big Short did for the financial crisis. The film recalls how before the actresses and assistants of Hollywood toppled Harvey Weinstein, the blonde bombshells of FOX News brought down a media magnate. Bombshell offers a pre-#MeToo story for the post-#MeToo age with its riveting dramatization of the fall of Roger Ailes. The razor-sharp and impeccably acted dramedy goes behind the scenes as three women (two real, one fictional) prove that the loudest voice in the room is rarely the smartest.
Bombshell stars Charlize Theron as news anchor Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as host Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as fictional producer Kayla Pospisil. Kelly finds herself battling alone in a minefield after she calls out Donald Trump on his abhorrent sexism during a Republican candidates’ debate. Naturally, the Donald wheels his unfunny sexism into a roaring joke about Kelly, which sicks the MAGA masses on her with one grammatically incorrect tweet after another. Kelly works for FOX News, however, and they don’t want to mess with their devoted right-wing audience. The ratings that Trump drives through the roof amplify the pervasive misogyny of the newsroom.
Kelly uses her forced absence to do some soul-searching about the toxic work culture in which she thrives. It’s obvious from the raging masses that said toxicity bleeds through the airwaves. Brought face to face with her institution’s complicity, she says the status quo has to go. However, once she’s back in the newsroom, it’s a return to being a pretty, leggy blonde for the audiences.
At the same time, her fellow FOX blonde Gretchen Carlson is on the outs. Kidman’s character gets the ball rolling on the massive lawsuit that seeks to topple Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow). Carlson sees her stock plummeting at FOX News despite her obvious popularity with viewers. She sets things into motion to hit back once Ailes can’t hurt her anymore. The film playfully skewers the alternate reality in which FOX News operates as Carlson incenses her fellow conservatives by taking moderate stances on gun control and sexism. As with Kelly, she faces consequences for deviating from the script and going off brand.
Then there’s Kayla. This fictional window into the world observes the machinery of the sexual harassment machine. Kayla, an ambitious up-and-comer eager to make the jump from a lowly producing role to the spotlight of the news desk, doesn’t hide her aspirations. She flaunts her street cred as a hip, young evangelical influencer with a quantifiable audience. The message: her boss, Carlson, is too old for young conservatives. Kayla makes her ambitions known by cozying up to Ailes’ assistant (Holland Taylor) who sees the pretty face and pair of legs that the boss will love. Cue a meeting behind a closed door.
Kayla’s presence in Bombshell serves practical and thematic functions. For one, confidentiality agreements and legal issues prevent Kelly and Carlson from disclosing the details of their stories. Bombshell offers insinuations and indirect accounts of Ailes’ lecherous abuse of power. Carlson recalls Ailes sidelining her when she refused to “show her loyalty” in the service of a promotion. The fictional Kayla, however, can be a surrogate for whatever may have happened to the women of FOX News.
When she’s in Ailes’ office, the dirty old man puts her through a humiliating audience. Ailes sits back in his chair with a leer as he waits for Kayla to stop blathering on about her credentials so he can direct her to hike up her skirt. He asks her to turn around and show him the goods. He wants proof of loyalty. Robbie conveys this humiliation with such devastating impact that her performance merits serious awards consideration. Through Kayla’s crying eyes, Bombshell witnesses the crush of idealism, the violation of trust, and the internationalization of shame that countless women encounter when a colleague abuses his power in such a degrading way.
There are little things, too, that highlight the pervasive sexism of FOX News that one can probably spot in workplaces worldwide. For one, Ailes tailors the news desks to be open. He wants to show off the legs of his hosts to audiences. While this situation might be unique to FOX News, it reflects a sad reality that many men, particularly those of the old guard, see women as tokens in a meat market. In Ailes’ esteem, good legs make for good news. Perhaps they distract audiences from FOX’s lack of credibility.
Penned by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for writing The Big Short with Adam McKay, Bombshell might be the first dramatic feature to tackle the revolution of silence breakers in any meaningful way. The film dabbles in The Big Short’s self-reflexive humour to underscore the absurdity of the distorted realities in which people like Roger Ailes and Donald Trump thrive. But Randolph and director Jay Roach smartly dial back the humour to respect the gravity of the subject matter. Bombshell is witty and whipsmart, but it’s never glib. It could easily have gone for the low blows that Ailes and company invite, but, thankfully, it doesn’t.
However, one must also consider Randolph’s framing of the story. Despite going first in breaking her silence, and arguably providing a more sympathetic character, the film puts Carlson in a secondary role. Kelly gets the spotlight. While the reason for this decision might simply be practical in relation to Carlson’s confidentiality agreement, it might sit uneasy with some viewers. Kelly is, admittedly, a dangerous force in right wing media. Her outlandish and outspoken opinions offend people and genuinely denigrate marginalized communities. Bombshell admittedly downplays Kelly’s politics, but one important fact remains: bad things sometimes happen to terrible people. They are no less worthy of empathy. Kelly’s politics and likability are ultimately irrelevant in Bombshell’s portrait of workplace harassment.
Full credit goes to Theron for her empathetic transformation as Kelly. This fascinating performance adds layers of humanity and character to Kelly that one rarely sees in real life. Compared to Theron’s work in Bombshell, the true Kelly plays like self-parody. This levelheaded performance rises above the shortcomings of the person it depicts. Ditto for Kidman, who shines in a somewhat underwritten role. Her feisty and spirited Carlson is a note-perfect complement to Theron and Robbie.
Lithgow also excels in the thankless job of humanizing Roger Ailes. In perhaps the most unsung performance of the year, Lithgow creates a humorous and borderline sympathetic take on the news tycoon. He portrays Ailes as a tragic figure of the alternate universe he built for himself. We see this distorted view of the world filtered through FOX News’s slanted coverage. Like Lithgow, each member of the ensemble works in the service of something greater. The film is the product of an industry that has undergone a reckoning long overdue. Bombshell is an explosive cry for an industry to hold itself to a higher standard.