The Bonkers ‘Bombshell’ Claim That Megyn Kelly Was Poisoned by Team Trump
The Fox News drama “Bombshell” blurs the line between fact and fiction—including implying that then-candidate Donald Trump poisoned Megyn Kelly before a GOP presidential debate.
The trailer for Bombshell, Jay Roach’s portrait of Roger Ailes’ downfall, lasts 97 seconds and contains just three words. The camera follows a bleach-blonde Margot Robbie, hair hot-ironed into prom waves, out of her office cubicle into an elevator. As she heads to the second floor, Robbie’s soon joined by two more blondes: Charlize Theron, made up into a Megyn Kelly clone, and Nicole Kidman, sporting Gretchen Carlson’s perky bob and a hot-pink dress. Over a spare, staccato vocal track, the three exchange glances. The camera closes in on each woman’s face, strained with subtext. Kidman cuts the silence: “Hot in here,” she says, fanning her dress. The elevator dings, and all but Kelly file out. The door closes on her face, glaring at them.
In a climate where trailers tend to crunch every plot point and joke into a two-minute montage, the Bombshell teaser was remarkable in its reserve, lingering on a moment of three different—but distinctly similar—kinds of discomfort. It was also misleading. The movie itself is not at all restrained, but a feverish, stylistically confused, and self-conscious account of Kelly and Carlson’s sexual harassment cases, trying to do too much at once. Where the trailer trended tight, subtle, and character-driven, Bombshell plays so fast and loose with style, facts, and odd fictions—including a heavy implication that Trump poisoned Megyn Kelly before a Republican debate—that it can be hard to determine if it’s drama or parody.
The bulk of Bombshell you likely already know. It opens with Kelly just before that famous debate where she clashed with Trump, launched a feud, and wound up an uncomfortable darling of the center-left. A few minutes in, we meet Carlson, talking with lawyers to explore legal action against Ailes, whom she claims harassed and then demoted her after she spurned his advances. It’s odd to see two famous faces from TV slip into the bodies and behaviors of two contemporaries, both also famous faces from TV, without approaching caricature. But Theron and Kidman pull it off: the former, though her fake face occasionally borders on claymation, matches her voice to Kelly’s signature tenor; the latter nails Carlson’s effete fidgeting and wide-eyed ambition. Other familiar faces who appear throughout the movie—Neil Cavuto, Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity—are more impersonations than anything else, played to comic exaggeration, and giving an otherwise serious movie the feel of an SNL sketch played as drama (as if to belabor this point, SNL’s Kate McKinnon appears in the somewhat superfluous role of a closet-Clintonite/lesbian working for Bill O’Reilly).
That tension between the pretty real and overtly not runs across Bombshell like pancake foundation. The third main character, for example, a wannabe anchor and “evangelical millennial” named Kayla, played by Margot Robbie, is recognizably fictional—a composite of many young women Ailes abused and an anonymous standout in a line-up of famous real-life characters. The script weighs heavily on Kayla who, after gushing about “family values” and Bill O’Reilly’s conservative genius, inexplicably goes home with McKinnon’s character one night without blinking an eye (she also conveniently quits at the end of the movie, out of some spontaneous desire to make the world a better place). Somewhat mystifyingly, the movie pairs their created character with actual recordings of Ailes’ real-life victims. In one scene, six headshots fade in and out on screen, as Ailes’ actual accusers recount their experiences in voiceover. It’s an odd moment—not unlike the movie’s frequent overlay of Trump’s tweets or sudden transitions into archival TV footage—that suggests an attempt to bleed real-world elements into the story without quite knowing where to put them, or why they were using them at all.
The most flagrant slippage between fact and imagination, however, comes near the beginning of Bombshell, as Kelly is preparing for her big debate. After drinking coffee, Kelly becomes violently nauseous, vomiting so uncontrollably she keeps a trash can by her recovery bed—all just a few hours before she’s set to go onstage. Later, when Kelly reveals to Ailes that Trump appeared to know she planned to ask tough questions, he implies that her coffee may have been poisoned. The subtext, unspoken but heavy, is that Trump may have arranged it.
The hypothesis comes from a chapter in Kelly’s book, Settle For More, where she describes the same incident, though refrains from any outright accusations. Indeed, outside of convenient coincidence, there’s little evidence to substantiate it. (Fox News declined to comment on the allegation; Kelly did not respond to requests for comment). In the movie, the theory is jarring—in part, because it becomes part of the fabric of a larger, mostly true story, blurring the line between history and speculation. But also because it has little bearing on the actual plot. Kelly never mentions it again; about halfway through the movie, her feud with Trump all but fades into the background, as Ailes takes over as the movie’s main looming villain. The conspiracy feels glommed on—an unnecessary dunk on an otherwise eminently dunkable president.
The flaws of Bombshell can be boiled down to an observation New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal made in an article about a spurt of #MeToo literature. While listing several novels which successfully grappled with grey areas of sexual abuse and power, Sehgal diagnosed a certain strain of #MeToo essays that did not. These anxious, self-conscious pieces, Sehgal said, failed to capture the nuance of the situation, because they were overly concerned with their imagined reception. They “strain[ed] to appease, convince, console,” Sehgal wrote, flattening their characters, pleading for credibility, forever “conscious of being overheard.” Bombshell doesn’t fall into precisely the same trap. The movie has no problem pointing out Kelly’s moral complexity—like the time, for example, when she dedicated an hour of airtime to arguing that Santa Claus could not be black. But the movie is equally aware that it will be watched, that it will be watched not long after these events actually happened, and that it will be evaluated, in part, on how closely it hews to certain moral standards: critiquing Fox enough, poking at Trump enough, valorizing Kelly and Carlson enough, but not too much.
The result is all nervous energy, as the movie vacillates between reportage and fiction, easy #Resistance hits at Trump or Fox, and self-serious signposting about the bravery of victims. You can feel the editorial decisions emerging, not from the characters’ motivations of the themes of the story, but from a desire to lace the scenes with subtext about its makers’ good intentions. Bombshell’s preoccupation with making sure it’s on the right side of history is palpable down to the last line. The final scene takes place in Gretchen Carlson’s home, after Ailes has been ousted, as she’s signing a settlement. It comes with a nondisclosure agreement. She’ll never be able to talk about her ordeal, the lawyer warns: “Gretchen, they’ll muzzle you.” Carlson looks at the camera, smiling—already anticipating how Bombshell will save her from silence—and intones: “Maybe.”