Film Review: ‘Bombshell’

Charlize Theron helms the latest screen version of ‘Bombshell’ and what really went down at Fox News.

Charlize Theron helms the latest screen version of ‘Bombshell’ and what really went down at Fox News.

I wish I could say that Bombshell is a kind of #MeToo big budget revenge fantasy in which three Hollywood heavy hitters conspire to bring down a disgusting, sexist pig… but that’s not quite what this movie is.

Yes, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron play three female whistleblowers who help topple Fox executive Roger Ailes and hold him accountable for “sexual misconduct,” setting a precedent that creates ripples through the media sphere and arguably paved the way for the fall of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Jeffrey Epstein, and others.

Indeed, some reviewers have discussed this film as a “down with the patriarchy” caper (I’m looking at you, Scott Mendelson at Forbes) … but that would be 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin! There is no such fun, frivolity, or even sisterhood in this film. When Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and Theron share an elevator ride and Theron returns Kidman’s sunny smile with an almost truculent squint we know this is not going to be 9 to 5. Pay attention.

As producer of the film, Theron told reporters at a special LA screening that the conversation around exploitation of women in the workplace “has already started” but that she hopes Bombshell “will continue it and maybe break through some of the nuances of the grey that this issue lives in.”

She’s right, and it does. If you’re looking for the film to end this conversation, this is not it, and I don’t think we’re there yet. The fact that the title of the film itself refers to a sexist term for a head-turning woman who possesses enough sexual attractiveness to destroy men shows you how embedded sexism is in our language and culture. 

Charlize Theron’s uncanny embodiment of Megyn Kelly—from the contralto pushback in her voice to her impenetrable, opaque stare — is no pltinum blonde Fox News bunny, she is titanium and in Kelly, the Amazonian Theron has found the perfect vehicle and drives it with aplomb.

Also fine is Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, a smart, sunny, proficient blonde who has finally had enough and can afford to rock the boat at Fox News after she is demoted and affronted by the seemingly endless parade of thin, blonde, young women headed to CEO Roger Ailes’s office.

Kidman’s Carlson is slightly bubble-headed, the human equivalent of Restoration Hardware, but it is her refusal of her workplace’s double standard, which results in her sacking, that sets things in motion and gives other women in the organisation the courage to come forward. 

The thematic bombshell is the exposure of the endemic sexism profitable to late capitalism. The film’s portrayal of Fox culture reminded me of other imperialist cultures — think Edo period Japan — in which women were cultivated to reflect and reinforce the supremacy of men.

The parade of “news Barbies” is extraordinary (and still exists!) is not inlike Japanese geishas, their pancake makeup a mask of acquiescence; teetering heels akin to foot-binding; clothes that aren’t so much work apparel as an invitation to ogle.

In addition to Carlson and Kelly is Kayla Pospisil, a composite character played by Margot Robbie, and an embodiment of the kind of podunkville pilgrim to Manhattan’s media landcsape who seems willing to endure a bit of harassment and more (give a little head to get ahead, was Ailes’s repulsive motto) to advance her career.

Robbie’s unique combination of vulnerability, hunger, desperation, ambition and openness is recognizable and cringeworthy. Her character is Christian — is willing to offer herself as a sacrifice at the Fox temple at which her brainwashed parents worship — but develops a romantic relationship with Jess Carr, a lesbian producer and office mate (played with dorky appeal by Kate McKinnon in a rare dramatic role) and their scenes together form the tiny, tender heart of the film.

Bombshell doesn’t just expose the proliferation of sexual harassment in corporate culture (which we know goes much further than Fox—hello, NBC); it shows us how it is a necessary evil for surviving in the late capitalist landscape. I mean, who hasn’t experienced it?

As Roger Ailes, Fox CEO and top Murdoch executive who, over decades, cultivated and wielded a power over women behind closed doors that was hardly to be believed given his physically repulsive and professionally unbalanced demeanor, John Lithgow is perhaps too sympathetic. But this in itself is an aspect of the patriarchy: even the most mediocre, benign men — men with wives and children and quiet suburban lives —  get away with murder and its equivalent.

“Sexual misconduct” is a stupid term. It makes it sound as though Ailes, and his ilk, are naughty boys. Nope, what we see in Bombshell is the way in which codes of gender conduct set the stage for systems of exploitation, harassment, oppression, and a certain kind of torture that asks women to participate in it — or else.

The film, directed by Jay Roach (The Campaign), is a clever and sharp delight and zips by; it may leave you breathless and wanting more. Enjoy the ensemble cast of women which Theron and her team have assembled, including cameos by powerful character actors Amy Landecker, Allison Janney, Robin Weigert, Connie Britton, and a fantastic uncredited role with none other than Holland Taylor.

Watch on Apple TV