Foxy ladies: Theron, Kidman and Robbie play the women who come together to take down an abusive media boss. Photograph from Lionsgate
Culture Movies

Review: ‘Bombshell’ goes from toothless satire to schlocky attempt at a girl power flick

The latest from director Jay Roach was supposed to be an account of how several women took down a despicable giant, but it ended up becoming something else.
Andrew Paredes | Jan 27 2020

Directed by Jay Roach

Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie

You could say that real life is Bombshell’s biggest spoiler. In July 2016, Roger Ailes (played with icky sincerity by John Lithgow under tons of prosthetic jowls) was abruptly ousted from Fox News, the right-wing propaganda machine that he built. This came after a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and a culture of macho bullying brought on by former anchorwoman Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) caught steam with the corroborating testimony of several women who worked at the network. The tipping point seemed to be then-anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), fresh off the social media drubbing she got for questioning then-candidate Donald Trump’s treatment of women, getting on the bandwagon. Ailes took a cushy $40 million severance package to not raise a stink; less than a year later, he died.

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Bombshell purports to be the true-life account of how several women banded together and toppled their big, bad boss. Apart from Carlson and Kelly, the other major plotline involves a fictional news producer named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), supposedly a composite of other behind-the-camera talent victimized by Fox News’ toxic work environment. Jay Roach, who has directed other fact-based, politically charged dramas like Game Change and Trumbo, and screenwriter Charles Randolph, who adapted The Big Short, seem to have their events straight. It’s everything else that’s the problem.

Sex and the network girl: Robbie plays fictional news producer Kayla Pospisil, supposedly a composite of other behind-the-camera talent victimized by Fox News’ toxic work environment.

Bombshell is a knotty sidelight in the #MeToo movement, primarily because it happened within the walls of Fox News. Factually, the women at the center of Bombshell helped propagate the culture of oppression they are now conveniently fighting against. During her tenure as co-host of Fox & Friends, Carlson was not above conflating the right of LGBTQ people to receive service from any business regardless of the owner’s religious beliefs with an assault on American freedoms. Kelly was later forced out of her post-Fox job as host of the third hour of NBC News’ Today show for racist remarks. Even the fictional Kayla brandishes her bonafides as “an influencer in the Jesus space.” They are surrounded by prominent Fox personalities like Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) and Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsay), who treat the allegations against Roger Ailes as us-against-them bloodsport rather than the cultural plague it is.

Nobody is saying that these women deserve the horrendous treatment they got. Robbie is particularly effective in a sequence where Ailes auditions her in the privacy of his office by forcing her to hike her skirt way, waaaay up—you can practically see the light of her idealism dying in her frightened, teary eyes. After an unpleasant encounter in a supermarket, Carlson yells after a woman who accosted her, “How you treat people who disagree with you says a lot about you!” But sanding down these women’s less savory edges, smoothing over their contributions to the despicable worldview Fox News is peddling as the de facto mouthpiece to anti-immigrant/anti-LGBTQ/anti-woman/anti-fact politics, and shying away from their complexity as flawed human beings makes it that much harder to feel sympathy for them.

Theron plays Megyn Kelly and Lithgow (with layers of prosthetic) plays Fox News' Roger Ailes. :

Elsewhere, the film either makes questionable creative choices or can’t seem to nail down its tone. Why put the status of protagonist on Kelly, who prevaricated and waited until testimony against Ailes was reaching critical mass, when it was Carlson who got the ball rolling? (Were they afraid of underutilizing makeup artist Kazu Hiro’s superlative work, which undoubtedly formed the foundation for Theron’s eerie Megyn impression?) At other points, characters like former anchor—now banished to newsreader on local Los Angeles radio—Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi) doing mental gymnastics after being propositioned by a male superior and a fictional news producer (Kate McKinnon) whose apartment walls are festooned with Hillary posters skew the film towards satire. But just what the film is satirizing is never really clear—on top of which, its satire isn’t bitingly funny.

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And then, in its final stretch, after trying for toothless satire and grim gravitas, Bombshell decides to become a schlocky anthem to girl power. As Regina Spektor’s “One Little Soldier” swells over the soundtrack, the film proclaims that these women “got the Murdochs to put the rights of women above profits, however temporarily.” Ah, there’s the operative phrase: “however temporarily.” Here again, real life is the literal spoiler: Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” recording would soon get leaked and Fox News still helped him get elected; co-host Steve Doocy still evaluates women by their looks on Fox & Friends; and everything is still depressingly business as usual. Bombshell wants to end on a triumph it doesn’t earn. It wants to detonate a bomb under the patriarchy, but its fuse is all wet.

 

Photographs from Lionsgate