“You will be muzzled,” the lawyer for Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) warns her at the end of “Bombshell,” as the former Fox News anchor signs a $20 million settlement of a sexual harassment suit against her former boss, ex-Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. The lawyer could have been speaking about the movie.
Carlson sued Ailes in 2015, which led other women, including fellow anchor Megyn Kelly, to reveal that he assaulted them too. “Bombshell” unfolds over late 2015, in the lead-up to Carlson’s decision to go public, and continues through Ailes’ firing in 2016, telling the intertwined stories of three white, blond, perky women affected by Ailes’ abuse. They are Carlson, Kelly (Charlize Theron) and the fictional up-and-coming producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a savvy yet wide-eyed young evangelical who tells a manager that she wants to be “an influencer in the Jesus space.”
Theron’s Kelly is our first guide to the cable news channel. In a tight shot through narrow hallways, she leads a tour through the bowels of the Fox building. She breezily brushes off catcalls from male colleagues (“He’s not horny, he’s just ambitious”), but is clear-eyed in comments about the sexism at the heart of the network: the dress code, the short skirts, not allowing women to wear pants, and the clear desks that Ailes demands of his on-air talent. It’s reflective of the way in which the movie treats the channel: taking care to applaud the female employees for taking down a bad man while eliding Fox News’ promotion of racist tropes, the way it’s torn families apart and other non-admirable actions.
Theron nails Kelly’s voice, and her prosthetics work overtime to nail her jawline, clenched so straight and tight that even while smiling, it seems to be holding her entire body together.
A pivotal moment occurs during the first 2015 Republican debate, in which she sparred with then-candidate Donald Trump and became something of a feminist lightning rod for questioning his treatment of women. “You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” Kelly began. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Ailes first applauds her for the conflict that’s sure to bring the network good ratings but fails to fully support her when it comes to telling Trump to back off in the ensuing social media fight. Why would Ailes, when the Kelly-Trump back-and-forth brings ratings? Instead, Kelly is sent on vacation. A similar, sympathy-eliciting moment occurs for Carlson after she does a segment without wearing makeup. Ailes watches and is furious, bellowing, “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.”
Kelly’s question to Trump during the debate was an important one, and she deserves credit for publicly challenging him Ailes’ reaction to Carlson’s segment was disgusting, and the makeup-less appearance was a brave choice. These rah-rah feminist moments, however, are not the full story of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as journalists, just as Roger Ailes is not the only rotten part of Fox News.
Carlson stoked Islamophobic conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama and made multiple anti-gay and anti-trans comments. Kelly used precious network time to harangue viewers about Jesus and how Santa must be white, called a teenager assaulted by police “no saint,” and claimed Sandra Bland would be alive if she had complied with police, among other racist comments.
Fox News has a history of promoting Trump’s birtherism, among other conspiracy theories. A 2012 study from Farleigh-Dickinson University found that Fox News viewers were overall less informed on current events compared to non-Fox viewers. “Bombshell” alludes to these issues in the briefest of video clips but otherwise fails to grapple with the complexity of the characters it’s asking the audience to root for, without too much questioning. Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s owner, and any number of other executives and anchors are just as culpable as Ailes.
Much of Ailes’ heinous acts against women are spoken of, rather than shown, aside from a truly infuriating moment with Kayla. Ailes forces her to reveal her underwear in a meeting ostensibly about her career prospects, telling her it’s a visual medium. Lithgow’s performance is terrifying, his face full of jowls and eyes practically swollen with greed. He is not simply sleazy but frightening, especially when he forces her to sit down again afterward and pretend the past few minutes never happened.
Worse, when she attempts to tell Jess (Kate McKinnon), a fellow producer on Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” what happened with Ailes, Jess immediately shuts her down. She tells Kayla it’s better that she doesn’t get Jeff involved, because as she repeats, she’s “a lesbian at Fox News.” Jess is indeed that, and, as we find out earlier, a Hillary Clinton supporter. That she has to say that over and over again feels like a replacement for character development. (As an aside, O’Reilly in 2017 also was fired by Fox News, after court settlements of sexual harassment claims involving him and totaling tens of millions of dollars were reported).
The quickness with which Jess shuts Kayla down is one of the movie’s most telling and effective moments, illustrating the ways in which Fox News set up a culture that pitted women against each other. In fact, “Bombshell’s” more impactful moments occur while watching Carlson’s building frustration as she calls various current and former colleagues, trying to convince them to join her lawsuit or at least speak out, and finding out they would rather not. Ailes took their dignity and bought their silence. Kidman’s visible mix of sadness and anger as her smile turns downward, and the energy drains from her eyes, as woman after woman turns her down is a highlight of her performance.
Sexism and sexual harassment transcend political parties. Ailes was indeed a creep, who may have lost his job but still managed to walk away with a hefty settlement and few additional legal consequences. Kelly and Carlson rightly took down Ailes, and they also spent plenty of years being paid handsomely for spewing hate and for their silence. All of these can be true, and it’s not impossible for a movie to tell the story of Ailes’ downfall while looking holistically at Fox News and its place in American culture. “Bombshell” isn’t it.Print