Bombshell: a glib and deficient #MeToo movie

Entrusting a film about the exploitation of women to the director of the Austin Powers trilogy was a risk scarcely worth taking.

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In Gus Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy To Die For, Nicole Kidman played an ambitious TV weather forecaster whose questionable behaviour included forging a reference from an employer praising her skill at fellatio. In Bombshell, she is on the same side of the camera but the balance of power has shifted. She plays Gretchen Carlson, presenter of the Fox News show Fox & Friends, who in 2016 was booted off the network for resisting the advances of its founder, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Fortunately for Carlson, she knew what was coming. Having already been demoted to an afternoon slot, she had taken the precaution of secretly recording his lascivious remarks to her. That came in handy when she sued not Fox, which was regarded as impervious to litigation, but Ailes directly.

Ten months earlier, the channel’s news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) was subjected to her own campaign of intimidation from another lumbering, lecherous male: Donald Trump, whose relationship to Fox News was a symbiotic one. It was Ailes who had encouraged Trump to run for the Republican nomination in the first place by guaranteeing his support; Trump, in turn, was catnip for the channel’s devotees. After Kelly confronted Trump on-air about his misogynistic behaviour during a Republican Party TV debate in 2015, Ailes refused to defend her from the subsequent opprobrium. “Our audience loves Trump,” he says in the film, his eyes twinkling as the ratings rise like champagne bubbles. The sign on the approach to New York’s Holland Tunnel, briefly featured in one scene, says it all: “Stay In Lane.” Bombshell explores what happens when women ignore this advice.

Charles Randolph’s screenplay shows the unlikely dovetailing of Carlson and Kelly – whose mutual enmity had been fostered by Ailes – and how it eventually sealed his fate. To this, the script adds a third strand: a newcomer, Kayla (Margot Robbie), who is a composite of several real-life victims of abuse. That cross-fertilisation of fact and fiction is repeated on a visual level, with actual news footage intercut with its dramatised equivalent: when Kelly conducts a televised rapprochement with her tormentor, it is Theron we see and hear responding to the real Trump. An apparent stamp of authenticity is provided by the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, famed for his bracing, documentary-style work with Ken Loach and Kathryn Bigelow. His camera here has an unfortunate tic – a sudden, almost imperceptible wobble of the lens intended to convey some unspecified veracity.

Bombshell is the latest example of a new mini-genre: the glib, fast-moving comedy-drama adapted from recent real-life events and featuring characters who break the fourth wall or continue talking once their on-screen close-up has frozen. Other examples include Adam McKay’s The Big Short (co-written by Randolph and shot by Ackroyd) and Vice, as well as Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat. Like McKay, the director Jay Roach started out in comedy, which isn’t necessarily a handicap until it comes to the scene in which Ailes asks Kayla to hitch up her skirt for him. There is a clear way to shoot this that would be discreet yet chilling – keep the focus on Ailes’s face as he issues his orders – but Roach hasn’t chosen it. As Kayla follows Ailes’s commands, revealing more and more skin until her underwear is exposed, it starts to seem that entrusting a film about the exploitation of women to the director of the Austin Powers trilogy was a risk scarcely worth taking.

Theron, Kidman and Robbie are highly watchable performers who are hardly stretched by this material. Dwelling more on Kelly’s dubious views (we get a glimpse of the broadcast in which she declared Santa Claus to be definitively white) might have made her a more complex character, but possibly the film-makers were reluctant to endanger liberal sympathies. Of greater interest are those benign allies who don’t realise they are reinforcing the status quo: Kelly’s partner (Mark Duplass), who accuses her of being too solicitous with Trump, or the colleague (Rob Delaney) who reassures her that Roger’s attention marks her out as “hot”.

The movie would look plain rather than deficient if only it hadn’t emerged so soon after The Loudest Voice, a seven-part Showtime series that includes some of the same scenes and even dialogue (“If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys”), as well as displaying a similarly Antipodean flavour in the casting: Russell Crowe as Ailes, Naomi Watts as Carlson. Lithgow is very good in Bombshell at capturing the avuncular, charismatic side of Ailes but Crowe, bulked up like a gone-to-seed wrestler, is both horrifying and human; when he massages Watts, he’s like an armchair that’s about to devour the sitter.

The Loudest Voice has many advantages over the movie, including an uncanny performance by Simon McBurney as Rupert Murdoch that knocks Malcolm McDowell’s effort into a cocked Sky dish. And if it seems remiss of a film column to be steering its readers towards the small screen, it might be pointed out that Bombshell doesn’t resemble cinema so much as run-of-the-mill TV. 

Bombshell (15)
dir: Jay Roach

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing