In the throes of the 2016 presidential campaign, as a nation geared up to elect a sexual predator, women in entertainment began speaking up and out against the bad actors in their own industry. You might’ve heard of a little thing called the #MeToo movement? One of the biggest headlines to come of it all was Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s ouster and subsequent lawsuit against the network’s CEO Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances. The complaint was groundbreaking in that Carlson strategically filed it against Ailes personally, rather than against the network overall, bypassing an oppressive corporate structure all together. Her willingness to speak truth to power and tell her story resulted in Ailes’s resignation, dozens more women coming forward about the toxic culture at Fox and a seismic change in the face of broadcast news overall (Matt Lauer, anyone?).
The events of that dramatic time are now the subject of Bombshell, a glossy, by-the-numbers version of filmmaking that saps what is a quite complex story involving fairly complicated players of any nuance or insight. Screenwriter Charles Randolph most recently gifted us with The Big Short in 2015, a film packed with energy, originality and depth, qualities many have tried to replicate since in films like Vice, The Laundromat…and now Bombshell. Unfortunately, what worked for The Big Short is proving to be a bit of lightning in a bottle, as none of these subsequent films, Bombshell included, seem to be able to balance giving a complicated subject matter its due with the aspects of a film that engage and entertain.
Directed by Jay Roach (Trumbo), Nicole Kidman stars as Gretchen Carlson, though she’s curiously not the focus of this over-stuffed, over-simplified drama. That falls to Charlize Theron as fellow Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who in this version of the story is a bit of a narrator (when it’s convenient) and a catalyst to the snowballing of the events to come. Completing the trio of leggy blondes (a Fox News brand essential) is Margot Robbie as Kayla, a fictionalized character who provides an entry point into the workaday toxicity the women in the newsroom faced. All three women deliver striking performances given what they have to work with; as written, the characters of the two real women are reduced to one-dimensional takes on multi-layered personalities while the made-up character is so formulaic she’s boring. (As a stand-in for the kind of woman who works at Fox, Kayla is painted as a naive conservative Christian from a “good” family who, inexplicably in the context of the film, dabbles in lesbianism.)
Based in fact as it is (every moment of the scandal was reported widely), the film has a lot of work to do to get through all the various important moments of the story, from Carlson’s unceremonious exit and subsequent lawsuit to Kelly’s days-long debate about whether to come forward with her own story or not. In between, there’s that presidential election to keep top of mind (Kelly’s infamous first question to Trump about his comments on women features heavily), and Randolph uses Kayla’s professional progress to chronicle just how awful the work environment was. What’s lost in all of this, of course, is the context within which it occurs, the role Fox News itself (and these women) played in creating the divisive state of affairs we’re now living with in both the media and politics.
Let me be clear: that’s not to say that any of what these women endured is any less horrific, unwarranted or wrong. As a woman who’s faced similar situations and extracted myself from toxic workplaces, these are things not to be tolerated or endorsed, and those doing wrong should be held accountable. What it does mean, though, in the context of Bombshell itself is that ultimately, the film fails to present the whole picture of a massively important movement in our culture. As important as the film’s central narrative is, something is lost without recounting the full picture of these actual events and the people involved in them.
Bombshell was recently shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyle, and it’s perhaps the only accolade I can understand it earning, as Kidman and Theron are transformed into their real-life counterparts with the help of subtle prosthetics and styling that’s so spot-on it’s haunting. Theron’s commitment to character is commendable; from the register of her voice to the way she holds her shoulders, there’s little whitespace between the actress and the woman. Beyond that, however, there’s little to recommend this watered-down attempt at seriousness.
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