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Review: Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell (2019)

Directed by: Jay Roach

Premise: Based on true events. Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) files a sexual harassment lawsuit against network chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and a production assistant (Margot Robbie) consider coming forward.

What Works: Filmmaker Jay Roach has established himself as a political filmmaker, dramatizing recent history in pictures such as Recount and Game Change in which he made familiar events fresh and relevant. Most important for a dramatist, Roach understands the human element of these stories and the people within them. That skill comes to bear on Bombshell. This dramatization of the Fox News harassment scandal could very easily have become a Saturday Night Live sketch. It doesn’t do that because of its nuanced handling of the issues and its complex characterizations. Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly are familiar public faces but they come across as people instead of caricatures. Actors Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron recreate the public look of their characters (Theron is especially good as Kelly, nailing her voice and manner) while giving these women authentic private moments. The other actors cast as Fox News public figures resemble their real life equivalents but in a way that looks convincing without getting distracting. The filmmakers of Bombshell take the matter of sexual harassment seriously. This is not a partisan hit job on Fox News. Instead, the movie is a scathing and intelligent examination of institutionalized harassment and one of the most impressive aspects of Bombshell is the way it dramatizes a hostile work environment. That’s accomplished by intertwining the stories of different characters at various stations in the network’s hierarchy: Carlson is on her way out, Kelly is a primetime star, and Kayla Pospisil (a composite character played by Margot Robbie) is an up-and-comer who is harassed by Ailes. The film is stronger for its multiple storylines. Each woman offers a different angle on the issue and the story dramatizes how silence is incentivized. The older employees know what’s going on but they have an interest in keeping their mouths shut while newer employees don’t know any better and accept it as normal. This creates a culture that enables harassment and protects the harassers while further abusing the victims. Bombshell portrays all of this in a way that is complex while also completely understandable.

What Doesn’t: There is a tension pervading Bombshell’s regard for sexual harassment. The politics of Fox News and the toxic culture that pervaded it are inextricably connected and it is disingenuous to separate those two things. Most of the movie does an admirable job dramatizing sexual harassment as an institutional problem but the focus of the story and especially its climax is the dethroning of Roger Ailes. The conceit of the movie is that if these women could expose Ailes then everything would be over. Ailes certainly set the tone for Fox News’ hostile work environment but in the years since his absence there is little evidence that the fundamental issues have changed. The network’s politics certainly haven’t. Bombshell’s false sense of finality is narratively satisfying but it’s not entirely true.

Bottom Line: Bombshell is an impressive dramatization of sexual harassment. The film may undermine its message in the very end but Bombshell’s nuanced and complex portrait of a poisonous workplace offers a lot to unpack and consider. This is one of the essential films of the Me Too era.