I am not a close follower of any official news outlets, and I despise the slant of Fox News, but the movie BOMBSHELL intrigued me from start to finish.
Based quite loosely on actual events leading up to and surrounding the scandalous downfall of Fox News’ sexist, paranoid CEO Roger Ailes during the U.S. presidential election cycle in 2016, the movie focuses on three blonde women employees of Fox. Charlize Theron plays well-known, controversial top tier anchor Megyn Kelly so believably that I initially could not recognize the actress the first few times I watched a preview of BOMBSHELL. Nicole Kidman is the shrewd, risk-taking Gretchen Carlson, a middle aged show host whose star is fading, in no small part because of her overt concern for gender equality in the cut throat corporate broadcasting business. Well, that combined with her desperate need to keep her hard-won job status and not be relegated to irrelevance and unemployment. She spearheads what eventually becomes an avalanche of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Fox’s founder Ailes, who is powerfully portrayed by John Lithgow. Margot Robbie as young and ambitious Kayla Pospisil is the third woman star in this drama, a fictionalized amalgam of associate producers for the conservative-focused news network. The rest of the cast, including Kate McKinnon as a closeted lesbian and secretly Democrat-identifying news producer, are terrific. Everyone was sharp and effective in their look and delivery, sometimes humorously so. An over-the-top, big-lipped Richard Kind as corporate attorney and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani comes to mind. But, there are others, such as the smug, queen bee Beth, played by Connie Britton, wife of the corpulent, ultra creepy Roger Ailes. And then there’s the ever-impressive Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Ailes’ salty and jaded legal counsel. Entertainment abounds.
Due to the large ensemble cast of real life characters, the periodic identification of each of them via quick on-screen titling was helpful for keeping track of who is who while also underscoring the film’s genre of docudrama. We viewers are smoothly moved along at a brisk clip from studio and office, place to place as if we too are right behind the camera. This all lends an intimacy and immediacy to a narrative about such public figures and issues.
The toxic environment of the Fox News network comes across as no less fascinating than an age-old unfolding of power struggles between a self-indulgent king and his nobles. On the surface, I found nobody to be particularly sympathetic in the movie, except for McKinnon as the lesbian news producer Jess Carr. She seems quite genuine right away, cynically and sadly compromising her principles to survive. Everyone else is also white but even more privileged, with the women competitively fighting by rules set by men in a patriarchal industry and culture. This is not at all a story about the 98%– i.e., most of us, including those of color and/or non-cis-genderedness or queerness (with Jess Carr being a closeted, token exception), and certainly all those who earn far less than the characters in BOMBSHELL do. Rather, it’s a peek into an emotionally and existentially dangerous world of politically and economically powerful people, all living within an ethos of self-centeredness and opportunism that I find quite foreign, yet is all too sadly real. To varying degrees, the three women stars grow increasingly more human and evolved, allowing for some sympathy and even empathy to actually develop within us viewers. This attests to the production’s decent, well-paced writing (by Charles Randolph), good directing (by Jay Roach), and solid acting.
The sociological and historical ramifications in BOMBSHELL are there to be found for the more discerning viewer. British actor Malcolm McDowall as Rupert Murdoch, billionaire owner of Fox News, felt to me like a colonialist or emperor coming from the “Motherland” to straighten out his large interests, or tribute country, in the “New World.” Of course, this is only one interpretation one can derive from that short segment of the movie. In part, this drama is a modern American allegory about the world of male rulers and their vassals, even though actual feudal times are supposedly long over (yeah, I’m not so sure about that). Looming in the background of the story is Trump, the up-and-coming petty tyrant “king,” cut from the same cloth as the fading, temperamental Ailes. However, a major, refreshing element is that the film is also about women pushing hard against the archaic sexual expectations, norms, and boundaries imposed on them by these very same men. The good fight goes on.
The movie evoked a nuanced response in me, one of hope for much-needed changes to finally happen for women in the workplace in modern society on one hand while also reminding me that, often, it can be like musical chairs. Out goes one old white patriarch to be replaced by yet another. This is how it’s been for millennia, no matter the time, setting, or governmental structure of a society. However, social movements, such as for women’s empowerment, do make waves, which slowly ebb and flow forward for the better, with BOMBSHELL ultimately being a product of artistic expression out of those very current and concerted, well-meaning efforts.