Don’t hold your breath waiting for Oscar-winning talents to rip the lid off the scandal at NBC News, whose bosses still have suffered no repercussions for their part in the Harvey Weinstein matter and other sleazy deeds — but at least Hollywood has finally let us know how they feel about Fox News Channel.
They’re against. I’ve just saved you two hours.
Bombshell, directed by the Austin Powers/Meet the Parents guy, Jay Roach, and written by the Big Short guy, Charles Randolph, knows it hates Fox but can’t settle on what to do with this impulse. A goofy comedy, like The Big Short? A politically tinged suspenser, like All the President’s Men? A feminist whistleblower drama, like Erin Brockovich? Elements of each are present, but the movie resembles nothing so much as one of those media-gossip reports you come across in the HuffPost or Vanity Fair. Charlize Theron, as Megyn Kelly, and John Lithgow, as Roger Ailes, do fine work (especially Theron), but this movie is strictly a hunk of fan service to Daily Show watchers and suchlike progressives who spend nine hours a day obsessing over Fox News Channel’s existence.
At the screening I attended, the only two big laughs occurred when an actor playing Rudy Giuliani showed up and an actor playing Geraldo Rivera showed up. Haha, look at that egg-shaped head. Behold, there’s a silly mustache. Few opportunities for a cheap shot are resisted; Ailes’s wife (Connie Britton), who ran a small suburban newspaper, is introduced solely so the movie can have a laugh at her supposed stodginess in ordering a staff photographer not to wear a hoodie because it’s creepy. This is meant as what the kids call a sick burn. To me it is, like much else in the movie, merely a half-joke that no one bothered to make funny.
Bombshell dumps on us every piece of embarrassing info that emerged about Fox in the wake of sexual-harassment suits against Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, both of whom were subsequently fired. (Ailes died a few months after he was forced out.) It even manages to work in a clip of Kelly saying Jesus and Santa were white, and she’s the hero here. Since there aren’t enough Fox tidbits to fill a movie, the script simply makes up some new stuff and throws that in. Two of the five principal characters (the ones played by Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon) are fictional. The male director and male screenwriter do not seem interested in what it’s like to be a woman in corporate America, or the problems of sexual harassment or sexual objectification. They’re strictly interested in calling out bad behavior by Ailes and Fox — the place is crazy, says McKinnon’s character, a lesbian news producer. Is it? Or is it somewhat typical? Avoiding the wider issue means this isn’t really the topical story it purports to be. At the end a pathetic little title informs us that Kelly and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who filed the lawsuit that brought down Ailes, were among the first to speak out about what was happening to women in the media, “but not the last.” The implied following sentence is, “But we’ll say no more.”
The acting is a mixed bag. Kidman and Robbie play their characters as so feather-brained that they undercut the movie’s message of female empowerment, and Robbie’s “composite” character is drawn as a sexually confused devout Christian for no reason except to land a couple of cheap jokes. Lithgow deserves credit for giving Ailes some diabolical charisma, and Theron really gets Megyn Kelly — her intelligence, her poise, the tilt of her head, her low, quizzical voice. Kelly has in general been shabbily mistreated by the media for her Fox association, and Bombshell at least feels like some small measure of justice for her.
As storytelling, though, Bombshell is a wet firecracker. A tale whose outcome is known can be suspenseful — witness All The President’s Men. Such stories work, however, because they take us deep behind the scenes, exploring the workings of machinery of which we were only dimly aware. Everything interesting in Bombshell has not only been covered, we’re all sick of hearing about most of it. The movie spends 20 minutes on Donald Trump’s 2015 Twitter war with Kelly. Don’t we all go to the movies to get away from Trump’s Twitter feed?
Yes, it’s nauseating to watch Ailes, portrayed as a C-suite Jabba the Hutt by Lithgow, telling women auditioning for jobs to “give me a twirl” in his locked office. Such casual mistreatment of women ought to bother us all and is a worthy subject for a movie. But the most awful moments appear to be invented for the sake of titillation. (The filmmakers claim they talked to victimized women who violated non-disclosure agreements to reveal details, but this is conveniently uncheckable information.) Mostly the movie consists of meetings with lawyers and highly paid people fretting about what people say about them on social media. As for the snarky, sometimes comical asides about the look of Fox anchors, pardon me for noticing that every other broadcaster is also guilty of putting attractive people front and center. As is the case with Trump himself, when it comes to Fox the contempt is so uncontrolled that even the routine gets framed as a national outrage. If Bombshell wanted to live up to its title, it should have come up with something new. It doesn’t.