Bombshell Review: A Shallow but Searing Story of Workplace Harassment
Bombshell is a portrayal of the events leading to the (at the time) unprecedented downfall of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, brought on by the public revelation of dozens of sexual harassment claims against him and other powerful men within the Fox News empire. Although the film only skims the surface of the trauma, power, and manipulation that often accompanies sexual harassment in the workplace, it should be lauded for bringing attention to a pervasive problem that rarely gets screentime in Hollywood. Bombshell repeatedly reminds us that television is a “visual medium.” It’s a mantra that network executives use to excuse their objectification and exploitation of the attractive women they hire to appear on screen. To qualify for viewers’ eyes, you must have legs, usually a short dress, spanx, a push-up bra, and heels skinny enough to get stuck in a sidewalk grate. To be on Fox News, you have to be beautiful. What viewers don’t see, though, is that ambitious women looking to make a name for themselves on the network cannot do so without the official sanction of their (male) bosses. And in the case of the three female leads -- Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), and Kayla Pospisil (a composite character played by Margot Robbie) -- that means giving up your dignity, suffering demeaning injustices, and pretending like that behavior is perfectly normal. In short, they “have to give a little head to get ahead.” Although the plot is driven by Gretchen Carlson’s firing and subsequent suit against Roger Ailes, the story most closely tracks Megyn Kelly’s rising frustration with Fox News and her uncertainty about whether to share her own story and what doing so would mean for her career. Kayla Pospisil plays a minor but perhaps more important piece of the story: she is a current target of Roger’s sexual advances. Bombshell does a few things notably well. The most upsetting scene in the movie -- where Roger Ailes “requests” to see (all of) Kayla’s legs as a sick “audition” for a chance to be on screen -- gives the audience a taste of how sexual harassment and power dynamics in the workplace can manifest. Kayla, who has long dreamt of being on Fox News, must either give in to his advances or risk ruining her career. It is a choice no woman should have to make. The performances are also phenomenal. At times Charlize manages to completely disappear into Megyn Kelly, a feat that is challenging and can be distracting if it doesn’t work well (i.e. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie). Finally, the film gives an additional bump to women’s voices, playing the actual photos and testimony from Ailes’s victims and giving voice-overs only to female characters. It is also true that Bombshell does not fully explore the (often lifelong) mental and physical health concerns related to sexual harassment in the workplace. It does not delve into the complexities of women at the network who push the same standards as the ogling old men at the top, although it does portray the women pushing the “Team Roger” t-shirts as insensitive conspirators. And it holds back on making the audience too uncomfortable, a luxury working women in situations like those mentioned in Bombshell do not have. But not every movie can be everything. Bombshell is an interesting and well-acted film that will opens doors to discussions about workplace conduct, regardless of how you feel about the story or the characters it is based on. It is worth seeing for that reason alone. If you’re interested in helping to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, check out (and donate to) a nonprofit founded by our law school classmate Ally Coll: The Purple Campaign.