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In The Era of Trump And #MeToo, “Bombshell” Rings Hollow

by Sophie Hayssen

Bombshell is like a doughnut: tantalizing and delicious, but empty of any nutritional value. The film chronicles the downfall of Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) after multiple women, including Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), came forward with sexual assault allegations. Margot Robbie also rounds out the cast as Kayla Pospisil, a fictitious newbie at Fox, eager to work her way up the ladder.

The performances come across as little uneven, in part because the actors approached playing real-life figures in such different ways. Theron makes an uncanny physical and vocal transformation into Kelly, which sets such a high bar for itself that even Theron’s tiniest slip is heightened tenfold. Though Kidman’s take on Carlson leaves relatively more distance between her and her real-life subject, her performance only suffers from her character’s spatial disconnect from the rest of the cast. Carlson was one of the first women to come out against Ailes after she was fired from Fox. As a result, Carlson spends a significant part of the film outside the network, building her case against Ailes from afar.

At its most insightful, Bombshell paints a clear portrait of how sexual assault can become engrained in the workplace. One of the most arresting and uncomfortable scenes in the film comes when Kayla goes up to Ailes’ office to meet with him about her future at the network, and he instructs her to do a turn while he watches. Then, he asks her to hike her skirt up higher and higher until the bottom of her underwear is revealed.

Thanks in large part to Robbie’s superb performance, the scene brims with tension and deep humiliation on behalf of Pospisil. Amidst all this, Ailes is sociopathically nonchalant, explaining away this perversion because “television is a visual medium.” It’s an important scene in so far as it illustrates not only how women endure these inexcusable situations but also takes a crack at unpacking the paradox of an open secret.

Fans of stories like Succession are sure to enjoy the film’s emphasis on the inherent malevolence of corporate power. Like the Emmy-winning HBO show, Bombshell revels in the soullessness of its subject, played for humor. After the sexual assault story breaks and Fox’s toxic work environment comes under attack, we see women handing out Team Roger t-shirts, and breathlessly explaining to reporters that yes, female anchors are allowed to wear pants, all the while wearing exceptionally form-fitting dresses.

But aimed at the news channel known for promoting racist ideology and threatening American democracy, these subtle jabs are far too gentle. None of Fox’s insidiousness or even the extent of their extremism fully comes through in the film, and that lack of critique extends to its characters.

Bombshell really wants its audience to respect Gretchen Carlson. It portrays her as the quasi-feminist of Fox News, by emphasizing, for instance, that she used segments on her show post-Fox & Friends to teach girls about self-esteem by going make-up free, against Ailes’ wishes. Kelly is depicted in a similar light. When deciding whether or not to speak up about Ailes’ sexual harassment, she looks back at her daughter, asleep in the back seat of the car. The shot asks, “What would Megyn Kelly say to her daughter if she didn’t speak out?”

The honest answer is that Kelly would have a lot more to answer for than just being silent about sexual assault. Kelly’s casual racism has shown itself countless times throughout her career. For instance, when the Department of Justice found racist emails circulating between court employees and police officers, Kelly dismissed the controversy, saying that “there are very few companies in America…[where]…you won’t find racist emails.”

In the film, these extreme views are reduced to background noise. On multiple occasions, Kelly insists that she is “not a feminist,” a simple statement, encompassing the extent of the film’s exploration into Kelly’s psychological profile. Honestly, it’s a shame. The film makes it clear that Ailes’ ousting is a good thing and that Kelly, Carlson, and the rest of the women at Fox News were brave for speaking out. However, the film should be able to grapple with the good and the bad.

In avoiding the dark political impact of Carlson and Kelly, the film does a disservice to its own potential. Ironically, a film that seemingly aspires to promote female empowerment misses its biggest opportunity to have a complex, morally ambiguous female hero at its center. Even as a liberal, I am dying to know what kind of dissonance it takes to be part of an organization promoting a sexist political agenda and also fight against sexual harassment. Hell, what kind of dissonance does it take to work at Fox News in general?

Though the film offers no thesis on these questions for Kelly and Carlson, it delves deepest into the psychology of Pospisil and her liberal, lesbian lover, Fox co-worker Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon). We know that Pospisil comes from a religious household that adores Fox News and learn that Carr is at Fox News simply out of practicality. She explains to Pospisil during pillow-talk that she simply couldn’t land any other journalism job than the one at Fox News and is only there to make a living. While this thinking may seem jarring, it at least offers one simple avenue for explaining how someone can go through life with a career they know is morally fraught: money.

The hesitancy to extend this same level of character development to the real-life figures of Kelly and Carlson illustrates the dicey nature of the film’s subject matter. Because Fox News is at the center of America’s polarized electorate, any film about the network is bound to ruffle feathers on either side of the political aisle. Instead of committing to a point-of-view one way or another, the film tries too hard to be something it never could—uncontroversial.

Top photo: Bron Studios / Bombshell

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