There’s an intriguing trend that has popped up in film criticism. One in which dictates that a reviewer is more likely to like a film if it’s text or subtext lines up with the reviewer’s political biases. Now, this is obviously not true to everyone, nor do I mean to imply that there haven’t always been examples of critics taking a stance on a film due to moral obligations. But the frequency of such examples has risen in the last decade, ascending along with the charged political climate of the past decade.
Which makes a film like Bombshell an interesting one to observe. On the one hand, in this #MeToo era, it seems like the right film at the right time for a generation of women who still feel unheard. On the other hand, some critics have been reluctant to anoint the film as a shining example of feminist cinema, mostly due to the protagonists we’re meant to identify with. I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong answer for how someone consumes this film, but it does deserve far more respect than outright dismissal.
The story centers around the real-life sexual harassment perpetrated by former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes runs his network not like a news network, but like he’s casting for a porno; it’s all about the aesthetics for his female anchors. The younger, bustier, and more submissive the better. Ailes employs a common industry tactic of putting a spotlight on the attractiveness of a woman in order to draw viewers (a tactic that also works on sports-talk programs). His methods are criminal, and his personality is creepy and gross.
Lithgow, to his credit, is having all the fun in the world at a role that is basically Jabba the Hutt in human form. He’s not chewing the scenery; he’s dousing the entire set in barbecue sauce before devouring every square inch. Meanwhile, the nature of Ailes’ behavior is whispered about but almost silently accepted. The culture at Fox News, even among some of the women, is that satisfying Ailes’ gross demands is a necessary evil to get ahead at a cutthroat network. At least this is the case until anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who has been harassed and demoted, schemes against her boss in an effort to expose the truth.
All while this craziness is going on, the biggest star of the movie is dealing with her own set of challenges. Charlize Theron is eerily a mirror image of former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, from her physical appearance, mannerisms, voice, and that weird way that she never blinks. Theron is assuredly headed for a Best Actress nomination, and it’s no wonder why she’s been at the forefront of the marketing campaign. Her version of Kelly enjoys a comfortable status as one of the network’s biggest stars. That is until a dust-up with presidential candidate Donald Trump results in her becoming a subject of controversy.
Kelly’s unwanted fight with Trump, and the proceeding paparazzi intrusions, are meant to allow us to sympathize with the polarizing figure, but the movie itself is unwilling to commit to this stance. This is exemplified in how Kelly seems to “resolve” the media fiasco, as well as the reveal of her own history with Ailes. Just as we think the movie is positioning Kelly to be one of the film’s heroes, the film does an about-face and questions her complicity in a culture of obedience and fear.
This is where the movie becomes interesting because one can debate just how much the film is critiquing the conservative establishment, and how much is it hand-waving concerning issues in the name of having a girl-power moment. I imagine there will a multitude of interpretations of what Bombshell succeeds at, but its thesis is clear: these are victims even if you don’t agree with their political ideology.
Director Jay Roach, of Austin Powers fame, diffuses the taboo of following characters who you might not agree with by making his film a comedy-drama. Sure there are moments that pack a dramatic punch, but the film’s primary speed is that of a quick-witted farce in which characters trade barbs and pop culture references at a rate that requires multiple viewings to catch all of them. The film borders on parody when exaggerated impressions of famous figures, such as Rudy Giuliani and Geraldo Rivera, appear so they can make a mockery of themselves.
In addition, Roach pokes fun at the masks we wear to fit in our surroundings by revealing the hypocrisy, and dishonesty, in some of the characters’ political leanings. This is a story where political stances aren’t necessarily made, but leveraged in order to benefit characters in specific circumstances.
Much can be said about the factual inaccuracies, or if some of the main characters are truly redeemable. But the most honest thing Bombshell says is that there are degrees to injustice, and it often happens within camps that would normally agree; bad things are usually perpetrated between people within the same vicinity. And if social movements against systemic toxicity are meant to succeed, then you can’t dictate who the victims are.