Pop culture moves so fast that Bombshell, the so-called exposé of sexual abuse at Fox News, became irrelevant just days before it opened — due to Olivia Wilde’s sharp performance as an avaricious female journalist in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. Wilde’s portrait of a ruthless, insensitive media operative who trades sex for a news scoop (and insensitively began the blame and vilification of Jewell), has been criticized by media hacks who perhaps are offended at the unflattering implications about their industry. Funnier than Bombshell’s half-satire is the spectacle of accountability-journalists flinching when they are held to account.
Bombshell is predicated on the canard that journalists — TV’s glamourpuss talking heads, especially the blonde brigade at Fox News — are paragons or, in social-justice-warrior terms, sainted victims. Even before Gretchen Carlson sued Fox News chief Roger Ailes — and before Megyn Kelly defected — wags had already mocked the cable network’s on-air talent as “blonde bots.” It was part of the Left’s campaign to dismiss the network’s credibility. (“Fox is nostalgia for a lost generation,” sniffs a progressive competitor.)
Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph can’t do any better than that; their best shot is scattershot: Combining Carlson’s allegations with Kelly’s, then adding a third anonymous composite female figure. It’s opportunistic overload, casting current Hollywood Barbie dolls Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie, all striking #MeToo poses in triple-vision refraction.
Roach and Randolph’s muddled argument confuses principles and sarcasm, starting with Kelly’s (Theron) introducing herself: “I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer.” Kelly is never scrutinized for her own fast-talking manipulation of buzzword concepts — a professional habit that covers up her own duplicity. Instead, the central issue of how careerists use the system that exploits them to exploit themselves is gainsaid.
If Bombshell truly were an exposé, it would go behind the scenes of Kelly’s calculated Vanity Fair magazine-cover career-launch that began with her presidential-debate question that both baited and blamed candidate Trump for sexism. Kelly instantly won media-darling status that eventually led to her lucrative deal when NBC raided Fox’s henhouse for its biggest female star.
Rather than taking showbiz practices to task, Roach pretends to challenge sexual harassment. But as in his 2012 HBO movie Game Change, a bringdown of Sarah Palin disguised as an exposé of the 2008 Obama–McCain presidential race, Roach plays the partisan blame game. Ailes (John Lithgow) is demonized for instituting a formula of superficial presentation that was already an industry-wide practice. “It’s a visual medium!” Lithgow glowers, doing a Jabba the Hut impersonation. That’s how Roach, director of Meet the Fockers and several Austin Powers farces, ridicules industry irony and hypocrisy. Roach includes a victim montage of women in documentary-style confessions, tearfully recalling their own harassment experiences. Cheap sentiment replaces complication.
Roach turns sisterhood into an Enemy-of-the-People beauty pageant. Theron’s Kelly, Kidman’s Carlson, and Robbie’s fictitious Kayla Pospisil show no political commitment or journalistic training. They compete with each other while aiming for our pity and approval. They use their feminine wiles for vengeance, and their deviousness is supposed to look like integrity — or mystical intuition.
“I always find it interesting to see who history chooses to do something important,” Kelly seduces Kayla. This contrasts Ailes’s own seduction line (“It’s a visual medium!”), to which every actress on screen responds with shock and humiliation. Hollywood’s wisecracking 1930s heroines wouldn’t turn sob-sister when asked to show leg; Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, and Joan Blondell understood how showbiz works. It’s only our self-deluding era that misreads the beauty-pageant line-up of teleprompter opinionators (female or male) as journalists and mistakes TV news for news.
Eastwood and Wilde outclass Bombshell by ingeniously achieving the essence of political, moral caricature. Wilde sums up what we used to know about desperate careerists by evoking Faye Dunaway’s classic flashing-eyed performance in Network. Roach denies the complicity within millennial female agency when Kayla’s convenient hook-up with a closeted lesbian co-worker (SNL’s increasingly unfunny Kate McKinnon) is shown as less insulting than hiking her skirt for a lecherous male boss.
Theron affects Megyn Kelly’s vocal inflections and egotism with uncanny precision. Kidman is simply miscast, and Robbie lacks the naïveté she showed so wonderfully when miming Sharon Tate. Roach’s blonde-bot casting coup cannot fake its way past the film’s basic dishonesty about the corruption of journalism. Careerist side-taking was part of Eastwood’s and Wilde’s point. They exposed how “media figures are deceitful propagandists and not particularly smart or remotely capable” (to quote Mollie Hemingway). Bombshell’s hypocrisy recalls that quip about a neon sign spelling out the soullessness of neon. Trading on sexual exploitation, Roach doesn’t even realize that his film’s title has become an overused journalistic cliché.