“You will be muzzled,” the lawyer for Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) warns her at the end of “Bombshell,” (directed by Jay Roach) as the former Fox News anchor signs a $20 million settlement in a sexual harassment suit against her former boss, Roger Ailes. She might just as easily have been talking about the movie itself, which exposes the former Fox News CEO’s sexual harassment and abuse while still letting its heroines off the hook.
In 2016, Carlson sued Ailes, leading several others including fellow anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) to reveal that he had assaulted them as well. “Bombshell” unfolds over late 2015, in the lead-up to Carlson’s decision to go public, and continues through Ailes’ firing in 2016, telling the stories of three of his perky, blond victims. They are Carlson, Kelly and the fictional up-and-coming producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an ambitious but wide-eyed young evangelical who tells a manager that she wants to become “an influencer in the Jesus space.”
Theron’s Kelly is our first guide to the cable news channel. In a tight shot through the office’s narrow hallways, we see her breezily brushing off catcalls from male colleagues. (“He’s not horny, he’s just ambitious,” she assures herself of one.) Kelly is clear-eyed in her assessment of the sexism at the heart of the network, from its refusal to let women wear pants to Ailes’ insistence that the desks of his on-air talent remain pristine. It’s reflective of the way in which the movie treats the channel: taking care to applaud the female employees for taking down a bad man while all but ignoring how Fox News has championed racism, torn families apart and generally made the U.S. a harder, more sadistic country.
Theron’s resemblance to Kelly is uncanny, her jaw clenched so straight and tight that it seems to be holding her entire body together. One of the film’s pivotal scenes occurs during the first Republican debate of 2015, when she improbably emerged as a feminist ally for questioning then-candidate Donald Trump’s treatment of women. “You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” Kelly began. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Ailes applauds her for her combative line of questioning, but when Trump takes aim at Kelly on social media, he fails to come to her defense. With the Kelly-Trump feud drawing huge ratings, why would he? Instead, the Fox News chief sends her on vacation for several weeks. The film similarly asks its audience to sympathize with Carlson after she dares to do a news segment without wearing makeup. In a state of rage, Ailes bellows, “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.”
Kelly’s question to Trump during the debate was an important one, and she deserves credit for publicly challenging him.
Kelly’s question to Trump during the debate was an important one, and she deserves credit for publicly challenging him. By the same measure, Ailes’ reaction to Carlson’s segment was disgusting, and her decision to appear on air as she did was a brave choice. But these rah-rah moments are not the full story of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as journalists, just as Roger Ailes does not singularly embody the toxicity of Fox News.
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Carlson stoked Islamophobic conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama and made no secret of her disdain for the LGBTQ community. Kelly used precious network time to harangue viewers about Jesus and how Santa must be white, called a teenager slaughtered by police “no saint,” and claimed that Sandra Bland might have survived her imprisonment had she complied with police, among other racist comments.
Fox News has a long, sordid history of promoting Trump’s birtherism, along with countless other conspiracy theories. A 2012 study from Farleigh-Dickinson University found that the network’s viewers were generally less informed on current events compared to non-Fox viewers. “Bombshell” alludes to these issues in the briefest of video clips but otherwise fails to grapple with the complexity of the characters with whom it’s asking its audience to identify. Countless anchors and executives, including owner Rupert Murdoch, have made it one of the most destructive forces in American life.
Virtually all of Ailes’ abuses of power occur off-screen, but “Bombshell” features one truly infuriating moment when he pressures the fictional Kayla to reveal her underwear during a meeting about her career prospects. His jowls heavy and eyes practically swollen with greed, John Lithgow is not just sleazy but genuinely menacing, especially when he forces Robbie’s character to pretend as though her sexual harassment never happened.
When Kayla does attempt to tell somebody—Jess (Kate McKinnon), a producer on Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor”—she’s immediately shut down. Jess says it’s better she not get involved because she’s “a lesbian at Fox News,” and, as we’re informed, a Hillary Clinton supporter. Unfortunately, “Bombshell” repeatedly reminds us of these facts in lieu of any kind of character development. (As an aside, Fox News fired O’Reilly in 2017 amid reports that he had settled multiple sexual harassment claims totaling tens of millions of dollars.)
Still, Jess’ near-instantaneous refusal to help provides one of the film’s most powerful moments, illustrating the ways in which Fox News built a corporate environment that pitted women against each other. Indeed, “Bombshell” is most effective when it portrays Carlson’s building fury as her current and former colleagues refuse to join her lawsuit, despite her entreaties. Ailes has robbed them of their dignity and bought their silence. The energy draining from her eyes, her forced smile turned downward, Kidman eventually gives way to despair. It’s the highlight of her performance.
Roger Ailes was a sexual predator who terrorized dozens of women over the course of his long and ignominious career. Kelly and Carlson were the public faces of his demise, but they also spent years poisoning American culture at his and others’ behest. A more explosive “Bombshell” might have recognized that you can’t capture one story without telling the other.