Hollywood Taboo: A Review of Bombshell
CW: sexual assault and harassment
Petrified and half-naked, Kayla, played by Margot Robbie, poses in the office of the powerful television mogul Roger Ailes. “It’s a visual medium,” growls Ailes, played by John Lithgow, as he directs Kayla to give him a twirl. With her black skin-tight skirt pulled up above her hips, Kayla follows every order dutifully, spinning for him, pulling up her skirt to reveal her legs, and performing more sexual acts in order to prove her “loyalty.”
With no-holds-barred sharpness and visuality, Bombshell (2019) stars the blonde trio of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie. The movie critically documents long-time CEO and chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes’s incredible collapse from power.
Set from mid-2015 through mid-2016, when the #MeToo Movement began to pick up speed, the movie opens with the feud between Fox News personality Megyn Kelly and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. The feud is told through dramatized scenes intertwined with real footage and audio from the Republican presidential primary debate in which Kelly asks Trump about his previous inappropriate comments referring to women as fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.
This Kelly-Trump narrative folds into the chronology of Gretchen Carlson, another former Fox News talk show host, through her termination from and later lawsuit against Fox News and Roger Ailes. Meanwhile, fictitious Fox News employee Kayla, played by Robbie, navigates her illicit relationship with Ailes before eventually coming forward.
Jay Roach directs and sews these timelines together like a veteran seamstress. The stories are snugly woven together and serve as an exposé of the toxic workplace behavior at Fox News. However, in doing so, Roach tries to stitch together too much in only two hours, relegating many stories to fleeting significance. There is the Kelly-Trump feud, the Carlson lawsuit, Megyn Kelly’s claims against Ailes, a brief interlude of allegations against former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, and an even briefer exploration of the treatment of homosexuality at Fox News. Each of these could fill their own two-hour segment, let alone encompass an entire movie. The movie may have been better suited for a eight-episode Netflix limited series in which each of these themes and topics could have received full attention. Still, given the time constraints, Bombshell does an excellent job in demonstrating the toxicity of Fox News.
Here, though, lies a quandary as to the ultimate purpose of Bombshell. Though the movie is centered around Roger Ailes, Bombshell tackles more than that, attacking not just one sick animal but the entire ecosystem. Maybe Ailes was the king of the jungle, but the movie also tries to hold responsible the primates, the birds, and the alligators of Fox News.
Kelly, Carlson, and Kayla must decide whether or not to come forward with their allegations, risking their reputations, credibility, and jobs if they speak up. On top of that, there is a strong probability their allegations, despite being true, will not be believed by those with the power to do something about it.
Though Ailes is terminated from Fox News at the end of the movie, many questions are left unanswered. Do men and women in power have more responsibility to come forward? Do Kelly and Carlson share at least some degree of responsibility for the perpetuation of toxicity at Fox News? What role do bystanders play in the continued festering of sexual misconduct?
I am not sure these questions can be reconciled in a satisfactory, nuanced way, especially one that meets the time constraints of a movie goer’s attention span. Again, Bombshell may have been better suited to a Netflix series for this purpose.
Still, the film takes on an impossible and daring mission. While it may not provide a complete answer to many of its questions, it brings the important conversation about exposing sexual harassment into the limelight. Men and women like Kayla with sexual misconduct claims in the real world face heavy consequences and retaliation for coming forward with no guarantee that they will be believed.
For example, take the difficult positions that Kelly and Carlson are in. On the one hand, one might argue that the two were entirely complacent in the toxic sexual environment created by Ailes, O’Reilly, and others at Fox News. Kelly and Carlson had power, clout, and a strong following; we see that when they come forward, their allegations are taken seriously. Yet, both women initially hesitate in coming forward for personal reasons, and one is left to ask: if they had come forward sooner, would men and women like Kayla suffer less?
However, this tension fails to illustrate the entire story. The movie emphasizes that Kelly and Carlson are human, just like us, and have their lives and families to consider as they come forward. Even if they did have power, they still faced severe consequences in exposing Ailes.
Kelly knows firsthand the costs of dueling with powerful individuals. In the film, after challenging Trump at the presidential debate, Kelly and her family are harassed by photographers, paparazzi, and Trump’s supporters. As the controversy unfolds, Kelly finds her reputation irreversibly damaged.
Though the Kelly-Trump feud has little to do with the sexual harassment claims against Ailes, it plays an intricate role in exemplifying a pattern of risk individuals experience when challenging persons in power. Kelly weighs this experience as she considers coming forward against Ailes, fully knowing the costs of doing so. Ultimately, she and Carlson do come forward.
Bombshell is a complex, layered movie bursting at all levels. While the movie only brought home one Academy Award, Bombshell was far from a flop. The gusto of everyone involved in the process of making such a movie is noteworthy. Sexual harassment is a taboo theme for Hollywood, and it is doubtful that it is very profitable or attractive for the film industry to produce such a movie. Bombshell destigmatizes the conversation surrounding sexual harassment, and in this regard, the movie should be regarded as a major success.