During my annual Oscar-bait viewing I was scared away from multi-nominee (best actress, best supporting actress, best makeup and hair) BOMBSHELL, about the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, when my friend Matt Lynch tweeted that it was “worse than VICE!” That was an effective and immediate optimism killer. Now that it’s on video though I gave it a shot and I don’t agree, it’s not nearly as obnoxious or frustrating as VICE. But what good does that do to me when it’s not very good either?
Three great actresses play three Fox News employees with their own little stories. Two are playing known real life TV personalities. All three are blonde. Charlize Theron (REINDEER GAMES) plays Megyn Kelly, the star of her own show who was held out as the smart and independent woman at Fox because a couple she noted Trump’s sexism a couple times during the 2016 election. Of couse she also did the same bullshit as every other jerk on that network (about the only example in the movie is her crusade against non-white depictions of Santa Claus).
Theron, one of my favorite working actors, captures Kelly’s demeanor well, and at times the makeup job is uncanny. But I kept thinking “Who does her accent remind me of?” and once I realized it was Mira Sorvino in ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION I couldn’t unthink it.
Nicole Kidman (THE PAPERBOY) plays Gretchen Carlson, bugging her eyes and talking meekly in a slightly comical imitation that allows her to be pretty sympathetic without being normalized. She’s the one with the balls to sue the supposedly untouchable chairman and CEO, bringing to light an open secret that they’d allowed to go on for years, and causing him to resign. So you can at least respect that.
Margot Robbie (THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) plays “composite character” Kayla Pospisil (why not give her a pronounceable name if she’s fictional?), I guess based on some combination of the 22 other known victims. She’s an ambitious staffer trying to use an “I’m a young conservative, I have a fresh new perspective!” angle to work her way up the ladder, but Ailes has other interests.s
I think the most interesting part of the movie, which is directed by Jay Roach (writer of BLOWN AWAY) and written by Charles Randolph (THE BIG SHORT), is how it depicts women trying to take very small steps to stand up for themselves in a place where feminism is a boogeyman. Early in the movie, Kelly is preparing to moderate a debate and word gets out that she plans to ask Trump about calling women horseface and shit like that. “Oh great, the future of Fox is a feminist,” says Ailes. “She’s not a feminist!” pipe in two female staffers, defending her. I like the dynamic of these characters who we can see are invested in these fights but afraid to admit it publicly or maybe even to themselves.
Carlson, who has been taken off of Fox & Friends to do her own show, but in a much wore times lot, horrifies Ailes by doing an episode where she doesn’t wear makeup. Not because the Joker has poisoned the city’s supply of beauty products, but to make a point about male-female double standards on International Women’s Day/Cynthia Rothrock’s birthday. Meanwhile, despite Carlson’s pleas for women-at-Fox solidarity, Kayla leaves her staff to work for “that asshole” Bill O’Reilly. Kind of lonely standing up for yourself at a network built on putting you in your place.
Kelly has a little more support at home, where her husband (Mark Duplass, Theron’s brother in TULLY) chases off shitheads who run up and yell “DONALD TRUMP!” at her – easily the part of the movie that seems most like a documentary. I think this is the first movie to portray a historical incident involving a person being frequently harassed by morons because the future president obsessively writes misogynistic gibberish about her on Twitter to punish her for one time asking him a question about the misogynistic gibberish he writes about women on Twitter. And there’s some pretty good dramatic tension when Kelly and husband argue because he’s disappointed she let Trump off the hook in her subsequent interview of him. She knows what she has to do if she wants to remain a right wing celebrity. Doesn’t (at least in this fictional depiction) stop her husband from taking it personally.
John Lithgow (RAISING CAIN) plays Ailes, and it’s weird because you can’t not hear Lithgow’s voice in there, but the makeup is outstanding and he does a good job of hobbling around, breathing loud, exuding arrogance and condescension. There are harrowing scenes where Kayla meets with him in his office to try to get on the air and he makes her “do a spin” and then pull her dress up, grunting “it’s a visual medium” as his half-assed attempt to pretend it’s legitimate, coming very close to drooling. It’s torturously drawn out and loathsome and her hesitance followed by fearful surrender is heartbreaking.
The VICE comparison comes from some cutesy shit mostly at the beginning where Kelly walks around the building, breaking the fourth wall and explaining a bunch of stuff about the company, sometimes with infographics. Please, I beg of you, do not let this become the way to tell political stories. Are you trying to make us retroactively hate THE BIG SHORT? Because I think you’ve succeeded now. If that’s what you’re interested in, save yourself tens of millions of dollars and do one of those time sensitive political documentaries nobody can watch again after the election cycle. But if you want to make a real movie that somebody might still be interested in watching again some day then have some god damn faith in the power of cinematic storytelling.
Also like VICE (or W.), and not in a bad way, you’re looking to see who they cast as various famous Republican goons. Rupert Murdoch is played by Malcolm McDowell (TANK GIRL), Sean Hannity is Spencer Garrett (AIR FORCE ONE), Chris Wallace is Marc Evan Jackson (KONG: SKULL ISLAND), Rudy Guliani is Richard Kind (GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE), best of all Geraldo Rivera is Tony Plana (HALF PAST DEAD). There’s a weird choice that Trump is only stock footage, but O’Reilly is stock footage and an actor (Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer Kevin Dorff in very good makeup). And I think somehow they got permission to insert Kidman into real Fox & Friends footage but also have guys playing them in other scenes? Weird.
Where I think the movie overplays its hand is with Kate McKinnon (GHOSTBUSTERS) playing a Kate McKinnon character, a closeted lesbian and Hilary Clinton supporter working at Fox. Showing Kayla the ropes, she presents the cynical view of how to write a Fox news story full of fear mongering and racism. McKinnon is funny as usual and it’s effectively crushing when Kayla goes to her after the Ailes incident and she says she can’t get involved. But mostly she’s an obvious mouthpiece character who insults the audience’s intelligence by pointing out stuff that is ploddingly obvious to the presumably mostly left wing audience and would probly scare off the one Fox News viewer who accidentally watched the movie and was willing to learn from it. I guess that gives away the game – they’re not interested in satire or getting a point across as much as being pleasantly pleasing to someone who just wants to see something they agree with.
I think there’s something important about BOMBSHELL depicting this type of workplace sexual coercion and misogyny. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie this focused on it, showing the professional consequences of speaking up, the way the men (and some women!) in the office rally around the boss, the way the victims get attacked (if she had a problem with being forced to have sex in order to get a job, why did she later write a smiley face on a letter?), and the kind of denial Ailes’s wife (Connie Britton, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake) has to be in so she can support her husband. But I would prefer more of an Alexander & Karaszewski type of approach, treating them as interesting weirdos and just telling their story rather than having to add a fictional character to voice obvious points about how we all feel about their politics.