Bombshell is an important movie, although I fear it may be ignored by a large swath of the public because “it makes Fox News look bad.” Well, it does make Fox News look bad, but that's only because the network provided the biggest, most notable example of sexual harassment in the workplace we've seen in our lifetimes. Admittedly, there are a couple moments in the first half-hour where it seems as though the film is going to take a lot of cheap shots at Fox. Then it settles into its theme, becoming an informative, detailed look at how influential men abuse their power. And despite the serious subject, it's sometimes quite funny, too. The movie deserves to be considered without political bias.
The story revolves around three Fox News employees and their relationships with head honcho Roger Ailes (the excellent John Lithgow). Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was demoted, then fired because she didn't give in to his sexual advances and is now talking with lawyers. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) didn't give in either, but has kept quiet about his behavior in order to continue climbing the network ladder. Kayla Pospisil (a composite character played by Margot Robbie) is currently being subjected to Ailes' unwanted advances.
Bombshell tracks how the whole scandal erupts at Fox. The kickoff begins when Kelly questions presidential candidate Donald Trump about his treatment of women. He responds later with that now-famous “she was bleeding out of her...whatever” remark. Despite getting attacked by his followers, Fox tells her to go easy on Trump. In her mind, the message is clear: as a woman, she should shut up and let a man dominate her.
That prevailing attitude causes her to perk up her ears once the rumor begins that Carlson is suing. Kelly starts asking around if other women have been harassed by Ailes (or anchor Bill O'Reilly). Kayla, at this same time, is busy fending off the big chief's advances, which he disguises as work-related. Upon asking her to hike up her skirt so he can ogle her legs, Ailes tells Kayla it's only because television is “a visual medium.” Everything eventually swirls, with plenty of women coming forward with their stories, leading to the bigwig's downfall.
This is serious subject matter, and Bombshell realizes that there needs to be some intermittent levity. A few pointed Fox News jokes are present, as when Kayla's co-worker (Kate McKinnon) tells her, “Ask yourself, 'What would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather?' and that's a Fox story.” The movie additionally has some fun dropping in notable conservative figures for Where's Waldo?-esque appearances. Richard Kind, for instance, has a small role as Rudy Guiliani, and Alice Eve cameos as Ainsley Earhardt.
That sort of comedy may be off-putting to a few viewers on either side of the political aisle. Nevertheless, it doesn't detract from the film's portrayal of a toxic work culture. Ailes clearly sets the tone. Women on-air must wear tight dresses and sit behind glass desks so their legs can be seen. Getting ahead at the competitive, male-dominated network requires a willingness to perform sexual favors. Opening your mouth will cause your career to be stunted, or possibly even ended. Director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph take great pains to show how Ailes uses his power not only to exploit his female employees but also to instill fear in them so they don't speak out.
All three lead actresses are superb, playing different sides of a triangle. Kidman radiates defiance as Carlson, who is rightly angered that her career has been derailed because she refused to have sex. Theron plays Megyn Kelly as the middle ground, the one content to maintain the status quo until she realizes the scope of the abuse, at which time she becomes mad as hell. Robbie breaks your heart as the young employee who comes to Fox with good intentions, only to realize that her brains and talent are not nearly as important to Ailes as her body.
Bombshell is sympathetic to the women, if not to the overall corporate culture at Fox News. (Kelly does get slight criticism for staying quiet so long, although she's ultimately presented as standing up for what's right on this matter.) The occasional satiric edge proves vital because the real heart of the story is so troubling. Sexual harassment requires a whole structure to exist. It needs complicity, a severe imbalance of power, and a desire to protect the establishment at all costs. Through the efforts of Theron, Kidman, and Robbie, Bombshell makes the devastating impact of toxic workplaces powerfully, chillingly clear.
It also reminds us that strong women can take down bad men.
out of four
Bombshell is rated R for sexual material and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.