This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
I’ve got a bombshell take for ya: This movie is very irritating!
On the other hand, that subject matter is the pattern of sexual harassment at Fox News, a network that has hardly resolved its major problems in that explosive area while continuing to be the most-watched cable news network and Trumpeter of laser-focused racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and misinformation. But, you know, Bombshell, what a romp!
The movie, if you happen to have missed the 14 commercials airing each hour, chronicles the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, by coming forward with accounts of sexual harassment, coercion, and predatory misogyny. That includes Gretchen Carlson, played here by Nicole Kidman; Megyn Kelly, in uncanny make-up and a vocal transformation by Charlize Theron; and a fictional composite character named Kayla, who represents many of the young journalists preyed on by Ailes at the start of their careers, played by Margot Robbie.
The story is inherently infuriating and heartbreaking. No amount of swagger and slickness in the storytelling distracts from the basic, visceral nature of that. And the film boasts sensational performances from Theron, Kidman, and, especially Robbie.
Robbie’s work in two pivotal scenes—one in which she is made to essentially strip for a leering Ailes during a job interview and another in which she breaks down under the gravity of what she did to prove her “loyalty,” to use an Ailes term—hint at a movie with more compassion that deserved to be made. But the performances alone should buoy Bombshell to major awards attention.
The film is tonally all over the place: Sunny and smug until it is impassioned and righteous. It also has no idea what to make of its lead characters. If you’re interested in seeing the revisionist superhero origin story for Megyn Kelly, boy, do I have a film for you. Hers was always going to be a complicated characterization, a situation the movie resolves by removing its complexity.
Kelly’s cross-aisle triumphs are the cornerstones of the film, from confronting Trump over his insults toward women and the attacks he led against her in the aftermath, to her decision to come forward as the highest-profile Ailes accuser. Fleeting allusions to her “Santa is white” comments and her softball interview with Trump don’t counterbalance anything, especially as the film spends more time justifying her forgiving treatment of Trump.
For all the lionizing of Kelly, the film seems to absolutely hate Gretchen Carlson. Yes, she gets credit for being the one who set off the falling dominoes that eventually crushed Ailes. But she’s almost uniformly filmed in demeaning and unflattering situations: chomping on a fast food hamburger with grease dripping down her chin, without make-up for a particular episode of her show, or sweating on an exercise bike when she learns of a major development in the Ailes case on her iPad. The pattern is just bizarre.
Bombshell borrows heavily from The Big Short and Vice’s gimmick of distilling the wonkish information behind major news stories with cutesy, fourth-wall breaking narrative devices. That this has become its own genre for adapting recent news phenomenons for film is exhausting, and with each successive entry in the canon, it produces diminishing returns. These takes, as Bombshell proves, are growing increasingly superficial. That’s a disservice when the matters at hand should command exploration that has more humanity and real grit, not showy gloss and self-satisfied smirks.
In the wildest misfire, a montage of testimonials from other female accusers amplifies the scope of Ailes’ behavior. It’s the sole time, in this film written and directed by men, that authentic female voices are heard, and they’re a pandering blip. You can nearly hear the men slow clapping for themselves from the edit bay, unaware of the reductive emotional manipulation.
That the movie seems to be going over like gangbusters with media crowds, awards voters, and even many critics who have seen the film seems to underline what a mistake this is—more, how confused we seem to be about what we actually want from a film that explores the #MeToo movement, media scandals, and the complicity in both, both institutional and our own.
You’ll laugh a lot. Allana Ubach as Jeanine Pirro and Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani are aces, and a scene in which Kimberly Guilfoyle passes out “Team Roger” t-shirts is a hilarious satire of the network’s tribalism. It’s a cinematic slideshow of big, dramatic moments in the Fox News scandal, with no window into the process or even motivations behind anybody’s actions. You’ll leave with nothing.
Bombshell says nothing about #MeToo, about Megyn Kelly, about the legacy of the Fox News network’s institutional sexism, or about the kind of behavior Roger Ailes exemplifies and corporate culture forever forgives. It’s basically a movie that says, “This happened,” and dresses up its account with breezy, crowd-pleasing tricks. It drops the bomb, sure. But then what?