There is a scene halfway through Bombshell, after Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) has sued Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) for sexual harassment, when a group of female anchors congregate backstage giving simultaneous interviews via cell phones in which they ferociously defend Ailes, stating that he never once made them uncomfortable. While they talk, they are also getting into wardrobe for a broadcast, which involves stuffing their bras, putting on girdles, and cramming their bruised and blistered feet into high heels. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that demonstrates how women can internalize their own harassment and oppression. Bombshell is the story of how three women managed to break free from the cycle of abuse.
The film opens as a meta-textual explainer in the style of The Big Short, with Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) speaking directly to the camera, explaining the power dynamics of the Fox News office. All the power rests on the second floor, where Ailes rules like a dictator, barking orders to the production room from his phone and hosting a seemingly endless line of young, blonde journalists in his office. Although we’ll later learn that Carlson and Kelly have suffered abuses in that room, we see it happen with Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an up-and-comer who is savvy enough to facilitate a private meeting with Ailes but who has no idea what sexual humiliations he has in store for her.
Directed by Jay Roach (Game Change, Trumbo), Bombshell work best when it opts for character-driven storytelling over pure information dump. The script, from Charles Randolph, who wrote The Big Short, alternates among the stories of Carlson, Kelly, and Pospisil. Carlson, after being fired for repeatedly raising women’s issues on her show, initiates a lawsuit, Kelly struggles with the decision to go public about her own harassment, and the fictional Pospisil suffers the impact of her harassment in real time. Pospisil is a crucial character, a Christian conservative and Fox fanatic whose idealism is shattered by Ailes’ abuse.
At its least effective, Bombshell succumbs to the temptation of turning its ripped-from-the-headlines plot into a wax museum. Brief appearances of actors dressed up like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly inspire chuckles of recognition that distance you from the compelling human drama. But maybe it’s no accident that the men largely come off as cartoons, while the women—including Kate McKinnon, who does her most emotionally resonant work yet as Pospisil’s friend and sometimes lover—are portrayed with more complexity. In particular, Theron deserves kudos for her portrayal of a woman who possesses immense power and influence but is struggling with how to wield it.
Bombshell works because it is not a partisan document. Sexual harassment isn’t restricted to one political party or ideology, so the abuse that Ailes inflicted on his female employees need not be tied to the regressive content that frequently tainted his airwaves. Bombshell makes the Fox newsroom feel like any other office space. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.
Bombshell opens Friday in theaters everywhere.
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