In last year’s documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, of all people, shared a story about what the Fox News president was like as a boss. According to him, Ailes called him into his office and said, “You know, it’s a shame when a wonderful woman like your wife ends up married to a man like you.” He was not joking.
Just think, Beck wasn’t even a hot blonde in a short skirt. Watching Bombshell made me glad that I’m not one, either. Like last year’s Vice, this is a hot-button political drama with a packed ensemble cast directed by a Saturday Night Live guy. I find I like this film better, because rather than attempting a disquisition on the state of America, it stays focused on the imperfect ways that women deal with sexual harassment at work.
It’s set in the summer of 2016, with Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) guiding us on a tour of Fox News’ headquarters in New York. While she endures a solid year of being Donald Trump’s favorite punching bag, she watches Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) be fired from her show, supposedly because of declining ratings but really because she refused the sexual advances of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, under a mountain of prosthetic fat). Gretchen files a massive harassment lawsuit against him, and Megyn sidelines herself until she figures out what to do with her own harassment at Roger’s hands. As for the man himself, he tells Kayla (Margot Robbie), a fictionalized composite character and a new evangelical Christian employee, to lift her skirt up above her panty line in his office. So she does.
I’m always fascinated by these historical dramas with a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a workplace in the eye of a public storm, and this one shows how the newsroom changes once Gretchen’s accusations go public: While Lachlan and James Murdoch (Ben and Josh Lawson) see a chance to depose a troublesome Roger with minimal blowback for themselves, Jeanine Pirro and Kimberly Guilfoyle (Alanna Ubach and Bree Condon) go around the newsroom intimidating Fox employees into publicly backing Roger. Gretchen is mystified that NBC and CBS haven’t pursued the story, but we know that those networks are protecting their own in-house sexual predators. After Roger falls, on-air personalities like Greta Van Susteren and Neil Cavuto (Anne Ramsay and P.J. Byrne) scurry to cover their own asses. We hear the inner thoughts of one low-level Fox reporter (Nazanin Boniadi) when anchorman Brian Wilson (an uncredited Brian d’Arcy James) hits on her: “Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck! … Just look confused! … Don’t react. Make it your fault.”
Director Jay Roach (who did, um, the Austin Powers movies) keeps the tone determinedly light, but the acting helps bring home how serious the stakes are. The movie has a parade of recognizable character actors (Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Brooke Smith, Robin Weigert), which I’m a sucker for. Theron does well to imitate Kelly’s chesty voice and flat Midwestern vowels, but the acting honors here belong to Robbie, one in which Kayla finds out about Megyn’s harassment and confronts her in an angry whisper to avoid making a scene in the office and another immediately afterward as she calls up her coworker and sometime lesbian hookup (Kate McKinnon) and unravels as she admits what Roger did to her.
The main criticism of Bombshell seems to be that it lets Fox News off the hook. Certainly Kelly and Carlson were guilty of spreading hate and misinformation on their shows, and maybe they don’t deserve to be the heroes of this high-profile Hollywood film. Then again, if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that this sort of male misbehavior goes on in a lot of places that have nothing to do with the broadcasting of conservative news. The script observes how even victimized women can enable such men — Megyn’s husband (Mark Duplass) can’t fathom why she doesn’t come forward, and she runs down all the professional benefits that Roger has given her. “He handed me the power to hurt him,” she says. Kelly does not come off well in the scene when she tells Kayla harshly, “Nobody’s job is to protect you.” The world is run by repulsive old men who feel free to grab ’em by the you know what whenever they want, and Bombshell offers a few tips on navigating that world and the people who populate it.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Charlize Theron. Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Charles Randolph. Rated R.