In the new drama Bombshell, directed by Jay Roach, Megyn Kelly (a prosthetic-laden Charlize Theron) describes Fox News king and media titan Roger Ailes as having “more bark than bite.” The same can be said for the film itself, which somberly details the “bombshell” sexual harassment suit filed against Ailes without actually sinking its teeth into Fox’s toxic workplace culture. While the film dives into Ailes’s harrassment case and the personal experiences of Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and fictional Fox News employee Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), it never digs deeply into how the network’s internal culture abetted Ailes’s career of harassment, or how the backbone of the network’s identity supports his dehumanization of women.
Bombshell is the type of movie that doesn’t quite make sense. The main issue lies in its protagonists, Kelly and Carlson, two of the least sympathetic people that any movie could’ve chosen to focus on. For one, Kelly and Carlson are both incredibly rich and privileged, and more importantly, they both enjoyed immense success as anchors of a network that profits off of fearmongering and fake news. That said, the movie does an admirable job of humanizing both women and making the viewer care about their problems, though I found myself still struggling to separate Charlize Theron’s like-able portrayal of Kelly from her repugnant real life counterpart. Even with the movie’s attempts to humanize Kelly and Carlson, it still begs the question: why should we care? Watching these beautiful, capable, intelligent women have to choose between surrendering to Roger Ailes’s sexual harrassment or giving up a chance to star on a horrible network doesn’t come across as the rock and a hard place situation that it should, mostly because landing a job on Fox doesn’t seem like a prize.
Somehow, the movie does make you care. I’ll chalk that up to some stellar acting by the film’s three leads, and a dynamic script by The Big Short writer Charles Randolph. Stylistically, Bombshell exists in a weird middle ground between documentary and fictional drama thanks to its use of real archival footage and uncanny prosthetics. While John Lithgow sports intensive prosthetics to transform into the corpulent Roger Ailes, and Nicole Kidman wears light cheek implants as Gretchen Carlson, it’s Charlize Theron who underwent the most intensive transformation to literally become Megyn Kelly.
The issue is that Theron doesn’t really look like Kelly, just a fun-house mirror version of a Megyn Kelly impersonator. She’s practically unrecognizable in the film, while under their prosthetics, Kidman and Lithgow still look pretty much like themselves. Although I found Theron’s prosthetics interesting technically, I thought that it distracted from Theron’s performance. She gives such a strong performance as Kelly, embodying everything from her voice to her stilted mannerisms, that the prosthetics are completely unnecessary. It makes you wonder why the film chose to transform Theron for the role when she could have played Kelly far more convincingly with her own face. It’s also bizarre given how unusual it is for actors to wear prosthetics to imitate real life people. Take the 2019 film Dark Waters, another sort of docu-drama that centered around a real life lawsuit. While all of the actors in the film changed their appearance slightly to seem more like the people they were portraying, none of them actually tried to look like those people. Films based on real events have always relied on the audience suspending their disbelief when it comes to actors resembling their characters, so it makes no sense why Bombshell attempted, unsuccessfully, to make its actors look like their real life counterparts.
Despite their strange prosthetics, all of the leads give riveting performances. Theron has the worst of it, stuck with Megyn “Jesus Was a White Man” Kelly, but she manages to make Kelly come off as stoic, elegant, and tough. Kidman’s Carlson hardly resembles the real one, with that same fragile strength inherent to all Kidman characters, but I appreciated that she tried to make the role her own, rather than imitating Carlson. Robbie’s character is a little all over the place, partially due to the fact that Kayla Pospisil is really an amalgamation of several different real-life victims of Ailes’s harassment, but she expresses the emotional trauma of sexual harassment more profoundly than any other character. The three actresses form the emotional core of the film, persuading the audience to feel something for women that they might otherwise have disdained.
My main qualm with the movie is that it doesn’t go far enough. It pokes fun at Fox’s toxic culture without tearing into that culture’s sexist foundations. The film has one sequence set in the women’s wardrobe room, where anchor after anchor has to squeeze into body-con dresses and stilettos. The women all have the same mermaid hair and overdone makeup. In a different scene, one anchor tells a reporter that she is indeed allowed to wear pants, while in another, we see a montage of male anchors belittling Gretchen Carlson with sexist comments about her physical appearance. While all of these scenes highlight Fox’s over sexualization of its female anchors, it also doesn’t say anything that we don’t know. What the film refuses to tackle is the dehumanization of these women, more than the objectification of their bodies, and how the network systematically sells an ideology that women are sexual window dressing, rather than intelligent human beings.
There are hints of this theme sprinkled throughout the movie, but the script never latches onto them. For example, we learn briefly that Kelly was a corporate lawyer, and that Carlson graduated Summa Cum Laude from Stanford, but the meat of the story focuses on the sexual harassment of these women, rather than how Fox as a network reduces these incredibly accomplished and intelligent women into news Barbies. There’s also several strange concepts in the film, such as Kate McKinnon’s character, a closeted lesbian and democrat stuck as a writer on the Bill O’Reilly show, and Margot Robbie’s character, who may or may not also be lesbian. Yet even though the show has a chance to explore other elements of Fox’s suffocating conservative atmosphere, the film chooses to stay in its comfort zone. Making a film about sexual harassment lawsuit against one bad man is too easy. Roger Ailes did sexually harass women for decades, and the film strongly condemns him for his actions, but there’s also more to Fox’s toxic culture than Ailes. In essence, by focusing on Ailes, the film lets the rest of Fox off the hook. Even after Ailes is dead and gone, the role of women on the network hasn’t budged an inch. So even though Bombshell ends with Carlson settling her lawsuit for $20 million, and Roger Ailes’s resignation from Fox, it feels anticlimactic. What, really, has been accomplished? A more daring film would have gone after Fox itself, and liberal media, too. The dehumanization of women in entertainment is a cornerstone of modern television, and it goes much farther than sexual harassment.
Final consensus: Bombshell is bolstered by strong performances from its leads and a witty, fast-paced script, but at its core, it’s a toothless reenactment of a mostly inconsequential sexual harassment lawsuit. By shying away from more controversial ideas, Bombshell presents a glossy story about powerful women taking down an even more powerful man, but underneath all that gloss, it ends up saying nothing at all.