Bombshell is not the home run we’d hoped for. The story follows the lead up to the reckoning that was the #metoo movement in conservative media during the campaign of the (now-impeached) President Trump. It’s a shame; the cast tries its hardest with what it has, but it is far too simplified for something we just saw happen in real time less than four years ago. In knowing that it’s all still happening, it loses steam. Perhaps it’s too worried about going too far into the present — there’s no mention of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) or Gretchen Carlson’s (Nicole Kidman) current gigs — so it falls short of the much bigger impact of what happened to these women for speaking up.
The two former Fox News anchors became the conservative faces of the #metoo movement, though they reject the “feminist” label that was tossed in their general direction for resisting sexism and sexual harassment. Since feminist is a dirty word for their former network, and they had an image to sell, it was a massive risk for them to come forward against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Theron is a chameleon who deserves praise for her performance, as does Lithgow, who now seems to specialize in villainy, not that I’m complaining.
The pressures of the network, the lack of upward mobility, and the fear of retaliation prevent the women from doing anything other than use the whisper network to communicate dangers. There’s no safety for the people (here: women) who experience sexual harassment. Ailes’ philosophy for getting eyeballs glued to his entertainment news network is based around appearances — clear desks for legs, for example. The sexual harassment hotline is useless according to Kelly; Carlson’s lawsuit seems to go nowhere without other women coming forward with their own stories.
The film resists portraying Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as victims or even heroes; they have too much pride and too long of a history of calling people snowflakes and casual racism for that kind of thing. In comes the fictional Kayla (Margot Robbie), who is the perfect third party newbie who we can feel bad for because she’s got the same ambition as Kelly and Carlson with none of the baggage of the Fox anchors, and she’s also closeted at work. She’s allowed space to have a life outside of the network that can be swiftly taken from her if she doesn’t demonstrate her “loyalty” to Ailes.
The most provocative part of the actual movie is in the form of showing how Ailes treats ambitious female employees: Kayla learns from the other women that Ailes likes short skirts, and that he makes judgment calls behind closed doors, but that discretion is a requirement. She gives him what he wants and gets what she wants in exchange.
Is it necessary to force an audience who knows about sexual objectification and is told repeatedly what is happening to watch, from Ailes’ perspective, a woman slowly lift her skirt higher and higher? I’d say it’s worth questioning the shot, but the impact is greater because of it. Some people simply do not believe women’s stories and need to “see” for themselves. Will the people who need to understand the problem see this movie or even see the problem?
Even if it was Kayla’s choice to go in his office, the film makes a point to emphasize that it’s still inappropriate and sexual harassment. Her career in conservative media is almost fully reliant on giving men what they want, at any cost. I cannot imagine that the scene was easy to shoot. It was a real risk, one that we should engage in conversation, especially because it makes us uncomfortable. I’m not eager to see it taken out of context.
The film successfully points to the complicity of some people for not only enabling Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, but also participating in campaigning against Kelly and Carlson. One character states that they can’t get hired at any of the major liberal news organizations because she has Fox on her resume, but they’re the only place that hired her when she was applying to media jobs.
In the years since this scandal, it’s become very clear that the divide between those who think sexual harassment is real and harmful, and those who think it doesn’t matter and/or doesn’t exist. Even if it has nothing else to say, Bombshell makes good use of its time to say that harassment does matter, regardless of who it happens to or when it happens. Ultimately, the media we choose to consume is still created and moderated by humans who are biased. When we may feel something is “balanced” or “fair,” we cannot ignore how people respond to this movie, especially if that response is to ignore it and let it bomb.