Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Blowing Up the News Media in “Bombshell”

In popular movies of the mid-twentieth century, the word “bombshell” automatically suggested a woman of sizzling sexuality. “Bombshell” was generally proceeded by the nicely alliterative “blonde,” and Marilyn Monroe was the prime example. A bombshell, of course, also describes an unexpected revelation that creates major chaos. On both counts, the 2019 film Bombshell is well-named.  Its heroines all bear a striking resemblance to Barbie dolls, and it deals with a set of #MeToo revelations that blew up the power structure at the almighty Fox News.

The revelations of course concern the late Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican political consultant who ran Fox News (and Fox television stations) with an iron fist. The canny Ailes knew what it took to attract viewers: not only a clear-cut political ideology but also a bevy of  gorgeous female newscasters dressed to show off the their long, shapely legs, As Ailes was apt to insist, “TV is a visual medium.” What Ailes did not admit to was his predilection for keeping his female hires in line by demanding (and getting) sexual favors in exchange for plum assignments and promotions. The movie, set in the key year 2016, depicts what happens when a veteran Fox anchor, Gretchen Carlson, decides to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. She and her lawyers are of course counting on additional Fox employees coming forward to corroborate her story. Though Carlson’s lawsuit is the engine that drives the story, it’s paired with the situation of Fox’s queen bee.  Megyn Kelly, an attorney who had become an influential news host, incurred the wrath of candidate Donald Trump when she dared to question him about his behavior toward women during a 2015 presidential debate. The issue at hand: would Kelly risk her power by telling her own Ailes stories in public?  

Kelly is played by Charlize Theron, who used her Hollywood clout to get this film made, serving as one of its producers. The extent to which she reproduces Kelly’s well known face and voice is uncanny: no wonder that one of this film’s three Oscar nominations is for her performance and another has gone to the hair and makeup team who transformed her into Kelly, Nicole Kidman into a bland blonde Carlson, and (most remarkably) John Lithgow into a porcine Roger Ailes. Lithgow, one of my favorite character actors, is a far cry here from the lovably spacey Dick Solomon in TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun. His creepy demand for a new young hire to hike up her skirt well past the point of propriety is probably this film’s most indelible moment.

Though I appreciate Bombshell spelling out a key chapter in American social history, I do have some questions about its storytelling methods. With the focus largely on Kelly, I’m not sure what to make of sacrificial lamb Carlson. Before she files her lawsuit, is she moved by a growing feminist consciousness? Doesn’t she realize that doing a “hard-hitting” show in which she pointedly doesn’t wear make-up is pretty silly? And what about the third in the trio of gutsy, beautiful blondes? Margot Robbie (also Oscar-nominated) plays what is billed as a composite character, here named Kayla. She starts out as a Fox true believer, proud to announce her religious and political leanings, which are right in sync with the network.  Yes, she’s ambitious to become on-air talent, but she also hangs out with (and once shares a bed with) Fox’s resident lesbian (Kate McKinnon). In her key scene with Ailes, she’s perfected the deer (or should it be “dear”?) in the headlights look, but can we believe her evolution?

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