2020 Oscar Reviews: Bombshell

Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught Me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…

Bombshell

(3 nominations, including best actress – Charlize Theron, supporting actress – Margot Robbie, and makeup and hairstyling)

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Of all the Oscar movies I’ve watched thus far, Bombshell is the one that’s impacted me the most. I can’t get it out of my head. I saw it the same weekend as Parasite and Harriet, the third film in three days, at a point where usually I’m frankly movie-fatigued. But this movie… this movie is big. And so, I am supremely disappointed to see it so underappreciated by the academy, particularly when one sees the other crap that’s been nominated.

But let’s start with the actual nominations! Charlize Theron is nominated for her portrayal of the very real ex-Fox-news anchor Megyn Kelly, Margot Robbie is nominated for her portrayal of evangelical millennial Kylie, who is a fictional composite character of many interviewed women who worked at Fox, and the makeup and hairstyling departments are nominated for their incredible ability to make Theron and the rest of the cast look nearly identical to the real-life people they portray. All three nominations are well-deserved. Theron in particular is amazingly good at capturing Kelly’s tone and strength, and you absolutely do forget which person you’re watching on screen. She’s currently my top choice for best actress, but I am yet to see Judy, so we’ll see what happens there. Robbie, however, had the most important job in the entire film; making us, the audience, feel her emotional arc as she goes from being a bright-eyed young professional brimming with potential and ambition, to getting hit by the realization that her dream was not going to develop as she had always hoped and her journey would go down a darker path, to feeling her horror, shame, repulsion, and isolation once her harassment began. She nailed it.

Which nominations are missing? The full cast of Bombshell was nominated for a SAG award (and lost out to Parasite), and I wish we could just nominate everyone. John Lithgow was perfectly gross (that breathing… eww!) as Roger Ailes. Allison Janney was fantastic as always. The list goes on and on. But the most notable non-nominated performance was Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. Her character was so central, and her performance so spot-on, that I have trouble understanding the ommission. Oh well.

Also, while we’re acknowledging the hair and makeup, why not acknowledge the costumes? The costumes alone told half the story in this film. Women are pressured into dressing up as “News Anchor Barbie” in short form-fitting dresses, exposed legs, and blood-inducing heels. Protests within the office involve tight-fitting tees. Pants are forbidden, and when worn, they are commented upon with scorn. One of the best quotes of the film is, “Do you know why we dress soldiers the same? So everyone knows they’re replaceable. I refuse to be replaceable.”

The other major omissions, in my mind, are Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. I want to direct you to this entire piece by screenwriter Charles Randolph, who won this year’s Paul Selvin Award from the Writers Guild of America for his amazing script:
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-12-19/bombshell-was-written-with-men-in-mind-says-charles-randolph
Randolph interviewed several women who had worked at Fox News in order to make sure he presented the atmosphere of his work as accurately as possible. Why is a man writing a script about sexual harassment? Because women already know what it is like, and he wanted to make sure that he and other men understand, too. In the linked article he explains:

“I’ve been surprised in recent years by how quickly I can question the emotional experience of women around sexual misconduct, as if ruled by gender defensiveness, some Darwinian instinct to minimize, ‘Yeah, but she went voluntarily up to his place….’ I wanted to write straight at that instinct, to map its fault lines, to drag my prejudices through a gantlet of actual lives. Here’s what I hope I can do: put a few men like me into the rooms where harassment happens, in offices like the one where Kayla encounters Roger Ailes in ‘Bombshell.’ If I can put men in that room, and inside Kayla’s perspective, inside her experience, then we can feel how that minimizing urge — ‘She kept seeing him!’ — does injustice to situations that are surreally complicated and utterly life-changing.”

Randolph is, in my mind, enormously successful, and I am reminded of the stellar work Jon Krakauer did with his hearth-wrenching book Missoula (which you should all absolutely read). But my mind isn’t the one that matters here. I found it an odd choice that the story is told my Megyn Kelly in the first person since the real Kelly did no consult on this film. What did she, or Gretchen Carlson, or any of the other women portrayed feel about Randolph’s telling? I hit up the Google and was relieved to see that they were (for the most part) satisfied with his work. Gretchen Carlson, who is strictly bound by an NDA, reacted to Kidman’s depiction of her by saying, “I couldn’t participate, but I feel like she found my fighting spirit, and that’s really all that matters.” This is probably the best confirmation we could expect from someone who is not allowed to confirm anything.

But Megyn Kelly absolutely CAN react to the film, and she did so with a thirty minute long report which you can watch one YouTube.

Kelly watched the film with her husband and three other women whose stories are told in the film. While there were a couple small details they picked at, they overall lauded the film for capturing exactly what their experiences had felt like. All of the women talked about how demeaning it was to have to twirl. An emotional Kelly explained, “So I was asked to do the spin, and God help me, I did it… I know people think it’s like ‘oh, yeah you have to spin around.’ But I remember feeling like… I put myself through school. I was offered partnership at Jones Day, one of the best law firms in the world. I argued before federal courts of appeal all over the nation. I came here, I’m covering the United States Supreme Court. I graduated with honors from all of my programs. And now, he wants me to twirl. And I did it…. If you don’t get how demeaning that is, I can’t help you.”

I could write ten more paragraphs about Kelly’s video reaction, but really you should watch it on your own and hear their own thoughts. Because hearing their actual thoughts was something that often didn’t fly while they were at Fox News, at least not according to the film. Carlson got blasted at for doing a segment without wearing makeup (the horror!). A producer (played by Kate McKinnon) can’t let anyone at work know who she is, but she can’t get different work because everyone knows she works at Fox. Kelly got blasted for asking a bloated douchebag whether someone who calls women disgusting pigs is someone with the right temperament to be president (the answer is no.) Maybe (definitely) they have bad opinions like hating on of Black Santa (ugh), but maybe they have some solid opinions like “it’s not fair that I’m being pressured into giving my boss a blowjob.” Randolph explains, “No one’s more surprised than me that an explosive story of feminist determination came from inside Fox News, but I’m glad it did… They prove some issues transcend politics. In a fractured culture, the most powerful stories are the ones that frustrate our easy judgments, and those sometimes come from rooting around in the sloppy middle.”

If there’s one thing I would change about the movie, it’s decisions about which character to depict or not depict. Assuming we believe Kelly (and I do), Janice Dean should have received a much larger role in the film, because she was the main person who found and convinced women to come forwards, yet in the film was only mentioned once. As an outsider watching the film, I’m surprised that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t play a bigger role. His harassment and subsequent ousting was referenced once or twice, and then was dropped in the postscript when it’s revealed how much money Fox paid out to the victims, and how much they paid to Ailes and O’Reilly in severance (spoiler: the abusers made more money than the abused, grr.)

Simultaneously, dozens of Fox personalities are dropped into the movie for literally just a few seconds or lines each. To some degree it’s cool and fun to how closely the actors match their onscreen personalities (https://www.eonline.com/photos/29777/bombshell-stars-compared-to-their-real-life-counterparts/983310), but there isn’t really much point in cramming them all in if we don’t learn anything about them or if they don’t somehow contribute to the story. How many of the men at Fox were complicit in the toxic culture? How many were oblivious? Why didn’t we get a better sense of any of that? My guess is that the filmmakers didn’t want to take the focus off of the women, which is great. But I dunno… I think there was space in the film to fit a little bit more substance about issues at Fox besides Ailes.

Anyhoo, you should definitely watch this movie. Please watch this movie. Everyone should watch this movie.


2 thoughts on “2020 Oscar Reviews: Bombshell

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