REVIEW: Bombshell fizzles like a damp squib when it comes to feminism

Wong Jia Min
Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie star in "Bombshell". (Photo: Lionsgate)

Bombshell is the fictional retelling of the all-too-real reality of workplace harassment and men behaving like they own everything. It is the 2016 US presidential election season and Fox News, the leading conservative television network, is where Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) are the faces of some of the most popular shows. Joining them is new hire Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), who is eager to make a splash at her new workplace as a younger conservative and “influencer in the Jesus space”. While she soon finds an ally in her colleague Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), Pospisil soon finds out the real consequences she has to pay to fight her way up the ladder, but meanwhile, Carlson and Kelly separately plot and plan to accuse Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) of continuing and sustained sexual harassment.

The movie is ostensibly a look on the inside of one of the earliest stories of the #MeToo movement, and tries to portray some of the complexity of having some very public conservative figures accuse their conservative boss and workplace of the exact sorts of crimes that liberals would decry. The operative word here is “tries”, because director Jay Roach has failed on multiple fronts to do justice to a complicated and nuanced issue that affects the majority of women everywhere.

The depiction of Kelly and Carlson is nearly the same, as if they were cut from the same template. Both found themselves subjected to multiple advances from Ailes in their way to the top, and when they turned him down, they found themselves passed over for opportunity after opportunity. The camera only ever shows them in their private movements as mothers and bossy women who refuse to shut up despite what their lawyers and colleagues tell them to. They are never allowed to be just themselves, even when they make the decision onscreen to go public with their stories. It all makes for a depressing look at what it’s like to work in conservative media as a woman.

John Lithgow in "Bombshell". (Photo: Lionsgate)

But possibly the most infuriating thing about the movie is its seemingly neat, flippant take on feminism and workplace harassment. That a male director and a male scriptwriter were hired to portray what should’ve been a story about women, instead of by women, is telling. The entire movie is informed by the male gaze, and in most cases seems to be made for the male gaze. In particular, the scene where Robbie as Pospisil has a private meeting with Roger Ailes and is forced to expose herself to him is in supremely bad taste and horrifically tone deaf.

Director Jay Roach has said in other interviews that he chose to shoot the scene by alternating between Pospisil and Ailes’s points of view so that the viewer could have insight into the discomfort Pospisil experiences. However, the camera puts the viewer into the role of voyeur, in this case, as Ailes, and does more to frame and contextualise the feelings of the perpetrator rather than that of the victim. I suspect this will be a very hard scene for female audience members to watch, or for anyone else who has been a victim of sexual harassment or assault for that matter.

Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon in "Bombshell". (Photo: Lionsgate)

In something that is presented so obviously as a fictional retelling of real events, it then becomes all the more jarring when the voices and pictures of Ailes’s real-life victims appear in on screen testimonies in the middle of the movie. It only emphasises how the women were nothing more than mere statistics that added up to a pattern of predatory behaviour that spanned decades. The movie never once questions why this was allowed to continue, and pulls its punches when exposing Fox News as a hostile workplace. If anything, Roach seems to have gone out of his way to soften the blow of any sort of criticism levelled at Fox News here.

Since this is a story about the ousting of Ailes, it’s not surprising to say that the movie ends in Ailes’s death soon after being removed as head of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch and his sons. The parting message is one of rah-rah girl power, but this mostly falls flat when you realise that soon after, the infamous tape of the current US President talking about grabbing women by a body part surfaces. There is no happy ending here, because as we all know, Trump would win the election, and women would lose once again.

Score: 3/5 stars

Bombshell opens in cinemas 30 January, 2020 (Singapore).