Review: Bombshell (2020)

Bombshell’s story is a perfectly manicured version of sexual harassment allegations against Fox New CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes.

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The choice of the title ‘bombshell’ is peculiar for Bombshell. Of course, it lends itself to the double entendre of being both an unexpected event and that of which you would call a very attractive woman. However, what it ultimately does in the case of this film, is reduce this relatively interesting story of workplace sexual assault, political power playing and the heroic actions of women in taking down a man who had gotten away with it for so long, to something of a spectacle. And that’s the problem from the outset.

Bombshell’s story is a perfectly manicured version of sexual harassment allegations against Fox New CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), focusing on some of the women who spoke out against him. There’s an older anchor in the form of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who’s time at the network seems like a ticking bomb, and whom we’re introduced as she is already meeting with lawyers to take steps against Roger for demoting her. There’s a fictionalised millennial and newcomer trying to break into the scene in the shape of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), who’s confidence oozes and we see her rise to the top, albeit knowing what it’s taking to get there. Then in the middle of it all is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), renowned television presenter and main figure of the story, who we first see braving against Donald Trump in a televised debate. She walks and talks us through the Fox building and is the eyes through which we see the business. And of course, she has our trust from the outset – she attacks Trump for Christ’s sake! You must trust her! The rest of the film follows these characters as they navigate the internal work politics of Fox and find their own empowerment against a man who gave them so much but also made them endure so much to get there.

Bombshell is a contemporary film, there’s no doubt about it. It’s current and it’s Time’s Up attitude is clear, as it should be. But the main problem is that the tone is never consistent throughout and it feels a bit like an Adam McKay rip off. There’s the signature talking to cameras, quippy one liners, titles for the characters and flashbacks, but it’s neither provoking enough nor as damning as it thinks it is. Sure there’s the incredible scene of Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi) and her voiceover when being propositioned by her boss which had the whole theatre roaring with laughter, but at the same time, we laugh about a woman who was a victim of sexual harassment and was ultimately fired for not bowing to her male superior. Moreover, we don’t hear or see from Rudi again. How does this film do justice to this real life woman’s story? Oh, but it’s ok, because Megyn “I’m not a feminist” Kelly is almost shown to be the saviour of all women at Fox.

So while the movie tries to pat itself on the back and stands with the women who eventually brought Roger down, it doesn’t say enough about sexual harassment and workplace politics. How did this man get away with it for so long? How had the company been structured to protect him for such a long amount of time? Instead it rather concerns itself with presenting these women who are victims of sexism, yet revel in it by working for a conversation news outlet that routinely denies allegations like these when they are against people they side with (see: Trump). And for that it glosses over a lot of the things that made these women problematic. Here Kelly is the champion of women, keeping an ear out for stories that sound similar to hers and not just taking on Roger, but Trump too (see this ongoing storyline for Trump being The Worst Ever TM so Kelly looks so great?). Gretchen doesn’t get enough credit for being the first one to speak out and put her reputation on the line, and she’s a formidable force that crosses the axis of sexism and ageism. Yet for both characters, we aren’t exposed to their offensive remarks said as anchors, and we forgive them for what they did for themselves, not even necessarily for other people as a character says to Kelly during the film.

The acting is solid on all fronts: Theron is the splitting image of Megyn Kelly, and leans into her more likeable parts. Robbie is superb in her minor role here, you can really feel her tears and her anguish in her key scenes. Kidman is underutilised and her typical tour de force performing isn’t here. Side characters played by the likes of John Lithgow and Kate McKinnon do well with their limited time on screen, and some fun cameos in the roles of more famous people are fun to watch during their scenes. It’s not a tour de force for acting, and a lot of the script doesn’t allow for high impact moments. In fact, it addresses sexual assault in the way that doesn’t entirely condemn Ailes, but its more a reflection on workplace politics and pushing back against any workplace trauma, whether it be bullying, harassment or more.

Fox’s complicity is also conveniently avoided throughout, and the Murdoch brothers look like the best people on the planet. Fox is an easy target and perhaps that’s the problem here. Who is the movie for? It may be read as a way for your average citizen, politically impartial, to understand how a company handles misconduct and see conservative women come together to take down a real awful and evil man. But what comment is it trying to say more than this? And is the film doing wrong by only focusing on one issue without the context of everything else happening with these real life characters and the wider cultural issues at Fox? Maybe that’s a film for another time.

3.5/5 stars

The Best

Charlize Theron gives a great performance as Megyn Kelly. There are some scenes that really get you heated up and want to fight back against management where you work. Margot Robbie also does a decent job considering what’s she’s given.

The Rest

Nicole Kidman is wasted here! Plus oversimplified storytelling with a single message. Aren’t we more multifaceted than that? It’s easy to find some evil person to pin things on, but that’s not real life. That’s Bombshell.

Originally published on Back Row, 14 January, 2020.


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