Hens in the Foxhouse
Late in “Bombshell,” an ingenue female employee, Kayla (Margot Robbie) accuses the famous Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) of enabling the sexual harassment of boss Roger Ailes by remaining silent while knowing for years about his predatory behavior. Kelly, although clearly troubled, responds assertively that Kayla, like other women, needs to stand up for herself. This scene illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this docu-drama centered around the sexual behavior of Fox News head Ailes (John Lithgow) and others in the company, including Bill O’Reilly. The strength of this scene is that it illustrates—as does much of the film—the anguish, frustration, and self-doubt of women who experience sexual harassment. The weakness is in the writing. Kayla, previously shown as easily intimidated and loathe to come forward, is not the right messenger for this accusation.
The power of “Bombshell” is the three women leads: Kayla—a composite invention—Kelly, and real-life Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who are in different stages of their careers, have experienced sexual harassment at different points in those careers, and have different ways of reacting to and coping with it. Kayla, the youngest, is confronted with Ailes’s advances in the present. The scene in which Ailes asks her to pull up her skirt is one of the most powerful in the film. In the end, as she says, “I gave in.” Carlson, on the downward slope of her career as a Fox anchor, is fired, and then sues Ailes for his treatment of her. She’s done her homework: she knows he can be sued personally, and she has secretly taped him for a year. Kelly, at the top of her game, is strong, cold, imperturbable; she’s put the harassment behind her, notes that she even likes Ailes and that he’s helped her advance, and she remains—mostly—silent.
Kayla, Meghan Kelly and Gretchen Carlson have experienced sexual harassment at different points in their careers, and have different ways of reacting to and coping with it.
All three women are fearful of losing their jobs—and their livelihoods—if they don’t go along with Ailes’s demands, or if they talk. So they do (go along)—for the most part—and they don’t (talk). Ailes appears to have promoted Kelly even though she rejected his sexual advances. He querulously says at one point to a group that includes his lawyer Susan Estrich (Allison Janney), “Do you believe I damaged these women?” He obviously does not believe he has.
The film illustrates vividly the effect on women of demands for sexual favors, even if those demands don’t lead directly to demotions and even if they are rebuffed. The trauma the women experience is played out mostly in private, until Carlson sues. The narrative avoids the legalities of sexual harassment, while highlighting the emotional pain Carlson experiences when other women fail to join her in her lawsuit (this is before #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein). “I really climbed out on a limb,” she says.
“Bombshell” is not a legal story; these are the women’s stories. They’re told with some nuance and impressive acting by all three actresses. Robbie’s is the best performance of the three, and Theron gives a dead-on impersonation of Kelly (although even the best impersonations aren’t as compelling as creating a character, as Joaquin Phoenix did in “Joker”  and Robbie does here).
Aside from the three women and Lithgow, “Bombshell” is a mess. One could expect more from Charles Randolph, the scriptwriter of the well-written “The Big Short” (2015), notable for Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining Wall Street jargon, and Jay Roach, who directed the excellent “Trumbo” (2015). They introduce dozens of characters, each of them labeled onscreen with names and titles, as if that could make up for a bloated cast. They no doubt thought the audience would enjoy seeing impressions of not only Kelly, Carlson, Ailes and Estrich, but also, among others, “Judge” Jeanine Pirro, Greta Van Susteren, Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, Bill Shine, and the Murdochs (look for a 76 year-old Malcolm McDowell [“A Clockwork Orange,”1971] as Rupert).
Aside from the three women and Lithgow, “Bombshell” is a mess.
The families of the three women are shadow characters as well; they provide little opportunity for dialog about what’s happening to the women, and little support. When Kelly asks her husband if she’s threatening the family’s income, he responds tersely, “Not yet.” The only family scene takes place when he and their three children surprise Kelly at her dressing room at the Republican Convention—not exactly the home front. Carlson bares her feelings only to her lawyers. Kayla—the composite figure who represents all young women at Fox—confides a bit in her carrel-mate, a somewhat-closeted lesbian (Kate McKinnon).
The script has little to say about the politics of Fox News. Kelly and Trump have their well-known standoff (Trump appears only in archival footage; no impersonation here), a scene in which Kelly seems less than far-right. Playing down the ultra-right, deceptive propaganda machine that is Fox News allows “Bombshell” to appeal to a wider audience, and to make Kelly more sympathetic. At the same time, this toning down of Fox News’s m.o. also makes “Bombshell” less interesting, and less honest.
Playing down the ultra-right, deceptive propaganda machine that is Fox News allows “Bombshell” to appeal to a wider audience, but also makes it less interesting and less honest.
Compared with another “inside newsroom” drama, “The Post” (2017), which also featured onscreen labeling of characters, “Bombshell” does not hold up. In “The Post,” the retelling of the decision to publish The Pentagon Papers is clear, crisp and taut. A far cry from “Bombshell.”
The three women actors in “Bombshell” should be nominated for an ensemble cast award—if the Oscars had one. The director, writer and editors should go back to school.
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Alison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Malcolm McDowell.
Oscars nominations: Best Actress (Charlize Theron); Best Supporting Actress (Margot Robbie); Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.
Runtime: 108 minutes