Review: The Blindingly White Feminism of 'Bombshell'

If people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, then why the fuck is Hollywood making films about institutional sexual abuse?

Bombshell is a #MeToo movie for the masses, positing the kind of misguided proposition you can expect from an industry that has never been equipped to create an adequately safe or inviting environment for women. The film follows the real-life toppling of the late media tyrant Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), and the women who were most instrumental in his ousting: Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Shot in the same handheld, increasingly irritating docudrama style as seen in The Big Short (2015), the film touts itself as a damning exposé on the ruthless corporate structure underpinning Fox News, and how CEO Ailes harnessed it to coerce sexual favours from his female staff with impunity. Yet it has surprisingly little to say about the culture war generator that is Fox News itself, let alone the tangled contradictions which define the women at its forefront.

The main attraction here is undoubtedly the film’s heavyweight cast, which flaunts the hefty combined star power of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie. Charlize Theron’s reputation for vanishing into nigh-unrecognisable roles (Monster [2003], Mad Max: Fury Road [2015])  is reinforced here with her impressive simulacrum of Megyn Kelly, much of which is owed to the make-up artistry of Vivian Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji. The familiar, varnished girl-boss demeanour which graced millions of TV screens is replicated with aplomb, but Theron also succeeds in teasing out the wounded dignity underneath the prime-time façade. Kidman is similarly convincing in a somewhat less demanding role as Gretchen Carlson, who filed the crucial lawsuit against Ailes (and makes the fatal mistake of being what Ailes describes as “a competitive woman facing a severe likeability problem”), while Margot Robbie leverages the sunny naiveté she exuded as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s (2019) Sharon Tate to play the evangelical millennial Kayla Popisil, a new hire who is callously fed to Ailes.

John Lithgow’s Ailes impersonation is compellingly repulsive, as he portrays a man as equally adept at twisting logic to make his deranged worldview sound plausible as he is at coercing women out of their comfort zone. One of his pet practices involves asking women in his private office to stand up and twirl; TV’s a “visual medium”, he justifies. Be warned, Bombshell doesn’t shy away from confronting the audience with increasingly degrading scenes of sexual harassment and exploitation; if only it was as committed to embracing the complexities of its female victims.

As I’ve previously written, Oscar-bait biopics about sympathetic bigots typically lack the veracity or insight to function beyond mere feel-good novelty. Bombshell is scarcely different, with director Jay Roach (Trumbo [2015], Meet the Parents [2000]) and writer Charles Randolph (The Big Short) configuring its thorny real-life protagonists as comparatively anodyne (and, by extension, much less interesting) fictional personae. For example, the real life Megyn has a history of racist fear-mongering, promoting climate denialism, and, as The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife has pointed out, opposing New York’s affirmative consent law. None of this is even hinted at, save for a few brief mentions of her infamous ‘Santa is white’ comment. Regardless of their beliefs, no one deserves to be demeaned or sexually abused in their workplace — but a film with more nuance and less pandering would have interrogated the mental gymnastics and crooked moral compass required for someone to proudly uphold the very structures which stifle them.

To its credit, the film succeeds in relaying the mechanics behind institutional sexual harassment, and toys with complexity when it briefly illuminates how women are isolated from one another and bullied into silence. The spectacle of a newsroom full of women donning ‘TEAM ROGER’ t-shirts amidst Carlson’s lawsuit is a sobering reminder that not only are Fox News’ employees willing to turn a blind eye to Ailes’ impropriety to further advance their career, but many of them simply don’t care. After all, Carlson only sued Ailes when she was severed from the company, and Kelly can’t help but coldly dismiss one of his victims when confronted about her years-long inaction — “it’s nobody’s job to protect you”, she retorts. Yet such moments are few and far between.

The film’s title, which suggests its own importance, is therefore something of a misnomer. Its decision to smooth over the prickliness inherent to Megyn Kelly or Gretchen Carlson’s characters broadens Bombshell’s appeal at the cost of weakening its impact. Without the backbone to be anything more than occasionally incisive, we’re left with a limp, non-committal political drama that is all too happy to do flattering PR for Megyn ‘pepper spray is a food product’ Kelly. It’s less a bombshell, and more of a faceplant.

Bombshell plays in Australian cinemas from 16 January.

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Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.

Jamie Tram