In my review of Richard Jewell, I mentioned that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution demanded the film contain a disclaimer that the events and characters within were mostly imagined for dramatic purposes, due to the film’s harsh, sexist, ill-conceived, and almost certainly fabricated depiction of Kathy Scruggs, who’s been dead nearly 20 years and has no way of defending herself against her salacious characterization. As I mentioned, to that point I had never seen such a disclaimer placed at the beginning of a film, as the AJC wanted. That changed literally days later.
Bombshell, directed by Jay Roach, begins with a full-screen disclaimer that the film is based on true events, and that everyone involved is an actor, except in archival footage. It also contains the standard plausible deniability that certain scenes and characters are composited and altered for the purposes of drama.
My guess is that such a disclaimer became necessary in order for Fox News – and its parent company, Newscorp – to sign off on the use of their name and image without getting sued. It’s the go-to device for a production to cover its own ass. But in a film like this, which chronicles the sexual harassment scandal that took down the late Roger Ailes, the disclaimer – and its prominent placement as the first image of the film – rings hollow and undermines the story. It’s like the filmmakers, producers, and even Lionsgate are saying that no matter what you see here, no matter your personal opinions on Fox News or just cable news culture in general, no matter how important it is for victims to speak up in the wake of #MeToo, all of this is still just a work of fiction. And in doing that, any real bite this film might have had is gone. The wind is completely taken out of the sails. It also doesn’t help that 1/3 of the victims in this film are fabricated. Manufacturing scandal when the true story is scandalous enough not only removes dramatic weight from the film, but it also invites heavy criticism from right-wing detractors just looking for an excuse to scream, “FAKE NEWS,” which basically leaves the film preaching to a liberal choir, robbing it of any dramatic stakes or tension.
The hair and makeup teams on the film pull the most weight, turning the rather large cast into their real-life counterparts, in particular transforming John Lithgow into the obese Ailes, and making Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman look like dead ringers for Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. Regardless of any story or structural issues the movie might have, this element is superb, and worthy of recognition.
The performances are also fairly decent. Lithgow is so deliciously slimy as Ailes that he might as well be a cartoon villain. Theron and Kidman also give convincing turns, with a lot of the heavy lifting being done with on point imitations of the women’s voices. You also get strong supporting turns from Allison Janney as Ailes’ lawyer, Susan Estrich and Malcolm McDowell in a small role as the evil mastermind himself, Rupert Murdoch.
There are a lot of things the film gets right about the culture of Fox News. There’s a mandate not to go too hard on any kind of journalism that might make certain conservatives look bad. For example, the first major event of the film is a 2015 Republican Presidential debate where Kelly is under orders not to test Donald Trump too much, and the admission that many of the debate questions were leaked to his campaign beforehand. While women have a place at the network, the word “feminist” might as well be that other “f”-word that you don’t say on TV. When Carlson finally sues Ailes, the directive in the office is to get on board “Team Roger,” with on-air talent forcibly handing out t-shirts to that effect, while Ailes releases the hounds to discredit Carlson. It’s the standard Fox motif of, “If the facts don’t align with the narrative, change the facts.”
I can speak to this anecdotally to a small extent. I used to work with someone at a different network who had previously worked in a technical role at Fox News. From what she told me, pretty much everyone not in an on-air or reporting role is a normal media professional. However, if your political affiliations are known, don’t ever make eye contact with the likes of Sean Hannity or other pundits, especially if they’re pissed off about something. They will turn you into a sounding board for all their conspiratorial bullshit. Similarly, I interviewed for a job at Fox Sports several years ago (full disclosure: I currently do unrelated edit work for Fox Sports part-time), and the term “News Bunny” was thrown around quite a few times, referring to the stable of attractive women (mostly blondes) who serve as talent in the News Division. These are truths relatively well known publicly from other sources, and it’s disturbing to hear all this from an alleged “News” organization. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, even if it does look controversial to depict it on a film, with Theron’s Megyn Kelly constantly breaking the fourth wall in a quasi-ripoff of The Big Short.
Where the film falls apart from me is with Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon. Don’t get me wrong, I love both actresses, and they give decent performances. My problem is the characterization. Robbie plays Kayla Pospisil, a fictitious composite of several younger staffers who may or may not have accused Ailes of harassment. Introduced as a bungling associate producer (she gets yelled at for putting up a graphic of Don Henley in a story about Glenn Frey, then apologizes because she doesn’t “listen to secular music”), she quickly moves up the ranks from Carlson’s show to Bill O’Reilly’s (played in the film by comedian Kevin Dorff), and has ambitions of being on-air herself. She proudly trumpets the company ethos (or lack thereof) and even comes up with a convoluted explanation of how the network actually lives up to its laughable motto of “Fair and Balanced.”
However, the veneer quickly fades when Ailes asks her to show off her legs and hike up her skirt, because television is a “visual medium.” By all accounts, Ailes did say this to multiple people who felt varying degrees of offense. However, here in the film, it’s a moment that’s supposed to sound the alarms about just how much of a creep he was, and instead it lands with a dull thud because Robbie’s character isn’t real. She’s made up. And to watch her continually get abused over the course of the film just yields increasingly diminished returns because there is no Kayla Pospisil.
Also, while the role is much more important than the person playing it, I found it very hard to separate actor from character in this moment, because Margot Robbie has played several sexually liberated roles in her time. In The Wolf of Wall Street, she plays with and displays her genitalia multiple times. Her most famous role to date is Harley Quinn, every nerd’s fantasy girl. Even in The Big Short, which this film tries very hard to be, she appears in a quick cutaway gag explaining subprime mortgages while sitting in a bubble bath. I’m not forgiving the actions Ailes or slut shaming Robbie. I’m just saying that with all that previous input, it’s hard for me to buy that this particular actress can sell the shame of having to slightly reveal her underwear. It’d be like watching all the X-Men movies and then casting Hugh Jackman as a guy who can’t stand to be around metal claws. No matter how good the performance might be, the history of the actor pulls you right out of the moment. And again, since she’s a composite and none of her moments can be verified as having happened the way they’re portrayed, there’s really no believability whatsoever.
This extends to the role of Jess Carr, a news producer played by Kate McKinnon. Like McKinnon herself, Jess is a lesbian, and even has a brief affair with Kayla, the self-proclaimed “Evangelical Millennial.” She’s also a closet Democrat who supports Hillary Clinton. Again, there are liberals at Fox News. They just tend to stay away from the front lines and the on-air aspects of the network. Here, Jess keeps her sexuality and political leanings a secret for fear of retaliation, which for the most part doesn’t really happen.
Also, like Kayla, Jess is a composite of several Fox News staffers, and not an actual person. Combined with Kayla, that makes one of the major through lines of the entire film, the real-time example of Ailes’ crimes, utterly fictional. There was a compelling enough story just with Kelly and Carlson – although their abuse is told through flashback rather than in the film’s present – but for some reason Roach and the others behind this film decided to create a third victim out of the clear blue, and all it does is detract from the film’s credibility and overall quality.
Finally, speaking of Kelly and Carlson, let’s not conflate issues here. They were victimized by Ailes, but just because he’s a villain, it doesn’t make them heroes. Both of these women, and just about everyone else on-air at Fox News, have been complicit in over 25 years of right-wing propaganda, conspiracy theories, racism, sexism, political hit jobs, and outright lies. To quote the President they helped elect, “They’re no angels.” One of Kelly’s more infamous moments – where she asserted on live television that Jesus and Santa Claus were white – is played for laughs instead of the apropos-of-nothing racist rant that it was. Gretchen Carlson once went on a tirade as part of Fox’s bullshit “War on Christmas” narrative about liberals, complaining about having to drive her children all over the city to see nativity scenes but getting offended at a Festivus pole, a symbol of a “made up holiday,” conveniently ignoring that all holidays are made up. We don’t see that Gretchen Carlson. Instead we see a crusader for women’s rights that she has never been. She was wronged by Ailes, as was Kelly and several others. But the mere existence of their victimhood does not automatically make them heroes. And to assert that it does is almost as bad as making up an entire character to create a third victim.
In the end, this sort of intellectual dishonesty turns the film into more of a mirror for Fox News than it intended. The facts about who Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are (as well as the fictitious third wheel on this tricycle) don’t fit the narrative of the abuse story. So rather than change the narrative, they changed the facts, and sacrificed an otherwise well-made film’s integrity in the process.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you watch Fox News? If so, are your brain cells still functioning properly? Let me know!