The release of Bombshell feels serendipitous amid the impeachment of Donald Trump. It partly tracks his rise into politics and builds up to the destruction of despicable men like him. But it’s also a mess — a swing for the fences that heads in misguided directions. And it’s difficult to watch with eyes weary from exposure to its toxic setting.
The film takes place within the world of Fox News, opening with the feud between former anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and then presidential-hopeful Trump in 2015, when she accused him of waging a war on women. Bombshell then pulls back to reveal the ironic truth that this battle began partially because of the culture that media outlets like Fox News created. We see the TV cameras linger on newswomen’s legs, and we watch them squirm as male anchors casually spew misogynistic comments. These shows further perpetuated the objectification of women and empowered viewers like Trump to publicly and unabashedly display toxic male behavior.
However, the film is initially too tongue-in-cheek in how it unveils this awful truth. Screenwriter Charles Randolph leans heavily on some of the devices — wry narration, fourth-wall breaking — that improved the digestibility of The Big Short (for which Randolph won a screenwriting Oscar) and Vice (his Short collaborator Adam McKay’s follow-up). But this is also a film about sexual assault, so, you know, maybe smug humor isn’t appropriate here.
Even when the film takes a more serious turn, it still feels problematic. In a key scene set in the office of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), we see him command aspiring anchor Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie, playing one of the film’s few fictional composite characters) to pull up her dress. When she hesitates, he barks, “It’s a visual medium, Kayla.” She eventually pulls it up so far that we see her underwear. What’s supposed to feel like a harrowing moment emerges as yet another act of casting the male gaze upon women.
This is the moment that re-sensitizes Kayla to the toxicity of Fox News. Early in the film, she worships it and even compares it to church. Although Kayla sees its negative impact on women every day, it’s not “real” for her until this encounter with Ailes. Herein lies the astute suggestion that devout Fox News viewers have a warped sense of reality, and they’re tone-deaf from all the noise in their echo chamber.
The film occasionally shifts its focus away from the female characters for individual scenes with Ailes, which feel off-putting. When he whines to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) about how he “mentored those women and made them famous,” Murdoch says, “There’s no audience for that side of the story.” But aren’t Randolph and director Jay Roach giving him an audience here? It feels uncomfortably empathetic.
Bombshell really only shines through its performances. Theron and Robbie capture the quiet desperation of women eager to tell the truth but afraid of its crippling consequences. As former anchor Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman conveys the anxiety of blowing the whistle and waiting for others to back you up. Lithgow is menacing as hell. And Kate McKinnon delivers an engaging performance as Kayla’s friendly guide through the world of Fox News.
The bottom line: Bombshell tells an important, timely story about women in a clumsy way, likely because it’s written and directed by men.