Making a film about the 2016 Fox News sexual harassment scandal is—to say the very least—tricky. Real-life anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson have both demonstrated discriminatory views against minorities on several occasions and contributed to Fox’s spread of hateful rhetoric and misinformation. Yet they also both faced sexual discrimination in the workplace and were exploited by that same institution they helped create. Thankfully, Bombshell director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph seem to get all this. You don’t have to like these women to recognize the repugnant behavior they’ve faced, empathize with their struggle, and admire their ability to fight back.
By starting with Megyn Kelly’s (played uncannily by ultimate chameleon actress Charlize Theron) fourth wall-breaking tour of the Fox News offices, the film establishes what kind of workplace this is and how Megyn fits into it. She’s clearly top dog, walking around like she owns the place and flippantly explaining its inner workings. But of course, we know who’s really in charge: CEO Roger Ailes, who remains unseen like some kind of omniscient god. “When someone says the 2nd floor, they mean Roger,” Megyn quips. Also during this brisk walk-and-talk, a man openly checks Megyn out, but she just smiles coolly to the camera. “He’s not horny,” she says. “He’s just ambitious.” Megyn plays the game deftly but seems to have forgotten that it’s rigged against her.
This snarky opening has “Adam McKay” written all over it—after all, Randolph and McKay co-wrote The Big Short. Some people might find this approach sensational and distracting, but hey, so is Fox News. While snappy dialogue, flashy editing, and shaky handheld camerawork can often feel smug, it mostly works in Bombshell’s case. Documentary-style zoom-ins add a sense of urgency and oppressive surveillance. At one point, the Fox logo even appears in the bottom left corner of the screen when mentioned by the characters, then dissolves in a slow, kitschy fade. These bold creative choices won’t work for everyone, but they probably make more sense here than say… Vice. They also put audiences in these women’s minds, with one inner monologue by Nazanin Boniadi as reporter Rudi Bakhtiar showing the arsenal of deflective phrases and looks that women must employ in workplace harassment situations.
After Megyn introduces us to the cultish world of Fox, we meet veteran Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and fresh “bombshell” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). While Gretchen is based on a real figure—the first woman at Fox to take legal action against Ailes by suing him for sexual misconduct—Kayla is a composite character of several other women harassed by Fox News executives. Her rise through the Fox ranks serves to demonstrate the network’s corrupt power structure, but it also clues us into Ailes’ vile hiring process, which involves making women expose their bodies (because TV is a “visual medium”) and perform sexual acts to prove their loyalty. I was impressed by one horrific scene between Roger (the lovable John Lithgow, in a remarkable feat of making himself utterly loathsome) and Kayla which managed to show this without sexualizing or exploiting Robbie in any way. It was just as unsensual and excruciating as the real thing, reminding us that sexual harassment is about power, not sex.
Kayla’s storyline also shows what happens behind closed doors when women like Gretchen and Megyn don’t speak up. It’s the women who carry the burden of their harassment, not culpable men. Bombshell understands that, while survivors should be able to deal with their own experiences however they see fit, their silence allows toxic behavior to continue. “I’m either damned for doing it or damned for not doing it sooner,” Megyn sighs.
Before publicly condemning Roger, Megyn asks Kayla if she’s been harassed. At first relieved but then angry with Megyn’s passivity up to this point, Kayla confronts, “You have power. Why do you play by old rules?” While Megyn doesn’t really answer Kayla’s question, we can presume her answer. Those “old rules” and everything that comes with them—the misogyny, the exploitation, the intimidation—take a heavy toll on Megyn, but they also put her in a place of privilege. She probably considers it her only option. Without taking sides, Roach and Randolph show the brokenness and inequality of the system at Fox while also exposing Megyn’s complicity in it.
This ties back to what most people probably wonder about Bombshell: does it adequately contextualize its main characters’ privilege and political views? While the film doesn’t deal much with the racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and [insert here]-phobia of its central women, I’m not convinced that it has to. In the movie, Megyn and Gretchen’s political stances come up as organically as they would throughout their daily routines. We already know who these people are and what perspectives they align with. They work at FOX NEWS, for God’s sake, whose point of view Kate McKinnon’s Jess encapsulates in one line: “Ask what would scare my grandmother and piss off my grandfather – that’s a Fox story.”
So it’s no surprise to us when Megyn, Gretchen, or Kayla denounce feminism and insist that Santa is white. What’s more interesting is when they contradict or question the structure that churns out these attitudes and conspiracies. Jess’s character, along with her relationship with Kayla, is one of the most memorable examples of this. There’s also a great moment where a woman passing by Gretchen at the grocery store tells her she’s destroying America. “How you treat people you disagree with says everything about you,” Gretchen fires back. Kidman has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of self-reflection on her face after she says this, as if questioning her defense of an organization she now realizes is poisonous.
The movie even addresses Megyn and Gretchen’s privilege within their racial and socioeconomic group. Megyn’s pregnant assistant jokes about envying how much people sexualize her while another argues that, if Megyn gets in trouble at work, the people under her will face the consequences. Bombshell also reminds us that while good looks are a woman’s currency at Fox, so is youth. When Gretchen decides to go makeup-free on air for the Day of the Girl, Roger shouts, “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat through menopause.”
While juggling all of this, Bombshell also reflects how Donald Trump’s political career changed Fox News and the Republican Party on the whole. After all, the film takes place during his Presidential campaign and some of the Network’s hosts at the time, like Megyn, express disdain for Trump but are stuck catering to his supporters. When Trump makes sexist comments about Megyn, Roger tells her not to push back because it would alienate their viewers. “As long as he says Megyn Kelly is unwatchable, he’s watching it,” Roger says. “And they watch what he watches.”
With so many moving parts, Bombshell needs a great ensemble cast, and it certainly delivers. At one point I asked myself, who isn’t in this movie? Theron, Kidman, Robbie, and Lithgow are all spectacular as expected, although I found Robbie particularly exceptional. I also mentioned Kate McKinnon as fictitious O’Reilly Factor producer Jess Carr, who brings an unexpected element to the film along with some big laughs. But smaller roles like Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Connie Britton as Beth Ailes, and Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani are all darkly delightful surprises. Malcolm McDowell is a force to be reckoned with as Rupert Murdoch and reminds us that there are people above even Roger Ailes. Mark Duplass, Ashley Greene, Andy Buckley, and a bunch of “what’s-his-name” character actors pop up as well, giving Bombshell a sprawling feel that matches the immense undertaking of its material.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
“Fair and Balanced.” This was Fox News’ motto and, for a while, Bombshell’s working title. While I can’t say the same for Fox, this movie finds a way to be fair and balanced in a world that definitely isn’t. While it has entertainment and emotional value to boot, Bombshell’s biggest strength is how it does its story justice. If you check Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see Bombshell has a fairly mid-range score like many of Roach’s other political projects (Recount, Game Change, The Campaign, Trumbo). Don’t be fooled—go out and see it.