December 13, 2019

Viewed in a certain light, the women of the Fox News Network, with their endless legs and helmets of sun-gold hair, are like female warriors beamed to Earth from a far-off, knowingly superior galaxy. Are they friend or foe? That’s hard to say, and the answer can hinge on whether you’re a man or a woman, and which way your politics skew. But no matter where you stand on erstwhile Fox personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, Bombshell, a hybrid comedy and real-life horror story directed by Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame) and written by Charles Randolph (The Big Short), aims to convince us that they are, above all, human beings.

On that score, it’s only mildly successful. Bombshell unravels the drama behind the downfall, all too slow in coming, of Fox News president Roger Ailes (here played by John Lithgow, lurking behind blubbery prosthetic jowls), a man who treated his news organization like his own personal candy box of sexual favors. But it focuses less on Ailes than on the women who brought him down: Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is the news anchor with an affable, nonthreatening presence on TV but who, behind the scenes, bristles at the overt sexism of the organization she works for, and particularly at the way Ailes rules over it all like the rooster of the henhouse. Kelly (Charlize Theron), a lawyer by training, is both feistier and frostier, and her cool intelligence is a valuable asset to the company. But she too has been the object of Ailes’ sleazy attention, and she finds her job situation made even more precarious when she challenges Donald Trump; as the movie opens, he’s not yet president, but the network is beginning to cotton to how popular he is with its viewership.

There’s a third player in this story, fresh-faced young producer Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional character: Carlson and Kelly, though both have been the victims of Ailes’ harassment, have aged out of his attention zone. He’s like the Eye of Sauron, his gaze always settling on the newest, prettiest, hottest young thing, and Kayla, with her breezy smile and mile-long stems, steps right into his lair. (Ailes also has a procuress, a seemingly friendly older woman who puts the younger women at ease before directing them toward her boss’ maw; she’s played by Holland Taylor, and she’s one of the most unnerving figures in the movie.)

Bombshell traces the intricacies of how each of these women, at first afraid to speak up, reaches the point where she can’t bear not to speak up. The scene in which Kayla is invited into Ailes’ office with the promise of career advancement, only to learn that her prospects depend on how yielding she is to Ailes’ sordid, manipulative demands, is the most dramatic. Her shame—she’s been wholesomely raised, as a devout Christian—burns right through her blank expression. Yet it’s Kidman, as the older and more seasoned Carlson, who’s the most moving. In one sequence, Carlson has just appeared on camera wearing no makeup, as a statement against the objectification of women on the International Day of the Girl. Ailes verbally accosts her afterward: “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.” He seeks to control her by robbing her of her dignity. That may not be as great a crime as overt harassment, but its insidiousness is still heinous.

Carlson, after her contract is terminated for no explicable reason, files suit against Ailes; Kelly eventually states that she too was harassed by Ailes, though she weighs the risks with flinty caution before doing so. And while Bombshell ends with an eventual triumph, your enjoyment may depend on how much you enjoy spending time with these characters. You don’t have to like Kelly, Carlson, or the fictitious Pospisil to feel something for these women, intelligent, gifted professionals undermined by a controlling creep. But you’re always aware of their relative privilege, too.

Theron’s portrayal of Kelly is a sleek bit of pitch-perfect mimicry. When Theron speaks, it’s Kelly’s throaty, businesslike voice that slips out; her eyes are hard and small and glittery, rimmed with uptight dark eyeliner. Theron is a superb and versatile actor, and she’s good here—it’s not that she always needs to play nice characters. But as Megyn Kelly, she’s like a Hitchcock blonde with all the allure drained from her. And who wants to see Theron like that, manicured to the point of soullessness as she plays a woman who, in real life, argued that Santa and Jesus unequivocally had to be white? Bombshell’s tone is sometimes jaunty, almost farcical; a few scenes radiate menace. What happened to these women is terrible, and it’s shameful that Ailes got away with his misdeeds for as long as he did. As the result of Kelly and Carlson’s stepping forward, and the actions of other women who spoke out, Ailes was finally forced from his Fox perch in 2016; he died in 2017. Bombshell is a story of bravery. But just because a woman has made history doesn’t mean you have to like her.

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