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‘Bombshell’ and the Downside of the ‘Timely’ Movie

The Fox News sexual harassment drama wants to speak to our #MeToo moment. But the film mostly proves how hard it is to address current events as they’re happening.

Among all the other things that are remarkable about All the President’s Men, what’s especially impressive is how closely it was made to the actual events it’s depicting. Drawing from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book, which was published in 1974, the 1976 movie chronicles what was then very recent history — the Watergate break-in and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon — and does it with enough perspective and gravitas that it feels like you’re watching the official record of what went down. This is hard to do: After major events occur — a death, a wedding, a national catastrophe — we often need time to digest them in order to grasp their full meaning. Our emotions in the moment can be too hyperbolic. Taking a step back can allow for a better understanding.

Most artists, however, don’t see it that way. Again and again, storytellers and songwriters will want to dive in, right when the emotions are still fresh, in the hopes of capturing the spirit of the times. All the President’s Men is the exception — most works of this kind fail. Seduced by the prospect of being “timely,” they end up feeling half-baked, rushed or poorly conceived.

Bombshell has a lot going for it, and almost all of that comes from the true story it’s dramatizing. A look inside Fox News, which cultivated a culture of sexual harassment, the film couldn’t be timelier. It’s set around the 2016 presidential election. It takes aim at Roger Ailes, a man who, before his death in 2017, peddled a nationalistic, racist GOP agenda to the country, which helped pave the way for Trump. And in our #MeToo era, the film is a defiant celebration of women who stood up to their male bosses who behaved inappropriately around them in the workplace. Bombshell is as much a movie as it is a collection of contemporary talking points — a document of The Way The World Is Today — as any movie in recent memory.

That doesn’t mean it’s great, though. And while Bombshell has considerable flaws, I think its greatest liability is that it’s too close to the events it’s chronicling. The movie simmers in the cultural tensions we’re all experiencing, but it doesn’t entirely know what to do about them. It’s timely, but it’s not timeless.

The movie focuses on three characters — two of them real people, the third invented. As Bombshell begins, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a Fox News star — sharp, attractive, blond — while Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is in decline, a former cohost of Fox & Friends who’s now relegated to a measly afternoon spot when no one watches. Meanwhile, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) is a peppy, naïve conservative Christian who’s new to Fox News, hoping she can get her shot as an anchor. Cable news is a competitive field, especially at the top-rated Fox News, and all three of these women are swimming with sharks.

Anyone who followed the channel’s inner workings will know what happens next. Upon being fired, Carlson accuses her boss Ailes (John Lithgow) of sexual harassment, setting in motion a series of events that eventually gets him removed as the network’s CEO. Directed by Jay Roach (Recount), Bombshell chronicles his downfall, but it’s also about how sexual harassment plays out — how it thrives on fear, intimidation, power and silence. Fox News wasn’t the only office where this this type of bad behavior flourished, but the filmmakers see the network as emblematic of a deeper ill in our democracy: Ailes and Fox News represent all that’s wrong with our country today.

I don’t have much problem co-signing that thesis. But while I ultimately liked Bombshell, I kept yearning for the smarter, tougher, gutsier film that it could have been. This isn’t a movie to see for deep analysis into our societal woes. Rather, it’s the equivalent of the virtue-signaling tweet you “like” reflexively simply because you agree with its content. And while it’s comforting to know that Hollywood filmmakers share your worldview, I suppose, I’m not sure Bombshell provides much of anything else. It’s the clapter comedy of true-life dramas.

You can sense the movie’s strategy by the way it advertises itself. By now, you’ve no doubted been inundated by at least three articles about all the work involved in Theron’s transformation to look like Kelly. And it really is impressive: The Oscar-winning actress could be her doppelgänger. A lot of trouble has gone into making the other actors resemble their real-life counterparts, too. But this seems like an artistic trap — the belief that mimicry automatically conveys authenticity, realism or contemporary relevance. Bombshell so badly wants to be timely that it must have its actors be Xerox copies of their characters. But by duplicating, Bombshell offers no fresh way of thinking about these people. And that’s because there simply hasn’t been enough time removed from the actual events to have a specific perspective. Instead, Bombshell tells its audience what it already knows, which is that Ailes is a creep and Fox News sucks.

Even the movie’s treatment of our #MeToo reality, no matter how sincere, feels shallow. Roach does a good job of showing how toxic workplaces happen — the middle managers know the situation is bad, but are too afraid to speak out lest they lose their job — and we get a sense of the bro-ish cliques that dominated the newsroom. But the approach is a bit earnest, crowd-pleasing and self-congratulatory. As far as Bombshell is concerned, sexism and gender inequality aren’t problems that you and I have to wrestle with — we’re the good people, not like those Fox News shitheads. The female characters’ victories are a little too easy — there’s no question we’re heading toward a happy ending — because Roach doesn’t really want to investigate the ugly psychology behind societal misogyny. He’d rather make a crowd-pleasing, you-go-girl inspirational drama that speaks to the sentiment of our age without excavating the nuance underneath. Essentially, the movie wants to spike the ball, thinking the game is already won. But anybody who’s been following the ongoing debate around #MeToo knows that’s far from the case.

Plenty of films and TV shows have felt like a reaction to #MeToo, whether it’s Big Little Lies or the new Black Christmas remake. (And, in a pinch, a filmmaker might simply claim their movie is a #MeToo drama just to make it seem more relevant.) But very few of these works feel like they’ll last beyond this brief moment — they won’t be something like All the President’s Men, which remains enormously compelling. And that’s the problem with most “timely” work — they worry more about checking off a particular current-event box than being a great movie. Bombshell is glib and uneven, but I admit it stirred up feelings I have right now about the ugliness of sexual harassment and the craven nature of Fox News. Yet those feelings, I hope anyway, won’t always be around. Movies aren’t supposed to simply agree with us — at their best, they give us a new way of seeing the world. Bombshell would rather just parrot your beliefs right back at you. Which, come to think of it, is another thing I hate about Fox News.

Here are three other takeaways from Bombshell

#1. What is the worst “too soon” song?

Earlier, I mentioned that storytellers and songwriters often respond to current events with half-baked art. I focused on Bombshell, but I wanted to take a moment to recall two terrible songs from great artists that were composed in the heat of their particular cultural moment. Neither song has aged well — but, then again, they were awful back then, too.

The first is “Peace in L.A.,” Tom Petty’s cry for calm after the Rodney King riots. Produced shortly after the violence erupted, “Peace in L.A.” feels like a Petty sound-alike song, except it’s not nearly as melodic or catchy. To Petty’s credit, all proceeds went to charities in East L.A., the area of town hardest hit by the riots. But that generosity doesn’t make hearing Petty intone, “Don’t be a fool — stay cool” any less cringe-inducing. “To this day I still get letters of thanks from missions in East L.A. because money keeps coming in,” the late singer-songwriter once said. “I felt like we did some good.” But like other charity songs, “Peace in L.A.” is well-intentioned but powerfully lame as a piece of music.

The other comes from Neil Young, who wrote “Let’s Roll” after hearing an interview with a woman whose husband was on Flight 93 during 9/11. “Let’s roll” was something that he supposedly said before he and his fellow passengers rushed the cockpit, and that quote got lodged in Young’s brain: 

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s gonna be 10 songs called ‘Let’s roll’ within the next week.’ So I said, ‘Nah, I’m gonna let somebody else do this. I don’t wanna be opportunistic about it, I’m sure there will be three or four country songs called ‘Let’s Roll’ immediately.’ Because it’s just such a great image — the whole story about the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93. I think it’s a legendary story that’s gonna go down through the ages — it’ll never be forgotten. So I was very surprised that I didn’t hear any songs. And I’m thinking, ‘I can hear this song in my head, nobody else has written it when I thought everybody was gonna write it.’ So I just wrote it. I couldn’t stop it anymore.”

“Let’s Roll” came out about two months after 9/11, and while the song isn’t awful, it simply feels inadequate to the task of summing up all the emotions of that terrible day — or honoring the courage of those passengers. What it does do, however, is demonstrate everything that’s limited about “timely” songs.

Of course, what’s funny is that Young much earlier wrote one of the rare exceptions to this rule. About a month after the 1970 Kent State shootings, he gave the world (as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) “Ohio,” a definitive protest song that captured the turbulence of its times perfectly. When it’s done well, you really appreciate just how difficult a feat it is. 

 #2. When celebrities die, it’s important not to confuse them with another celebrity in your news report.

Early on in Bombshell, Ailes goes ballistic when he discovers that Fox News is reporting on the death of Eagles band member Glenn Frey — while featuring a photo of fellow Eagle Don Henley, who remains very much alive. I was curious if that scene was based on an actual on-air screw-up, and while I couldn’t find any story about it, I do remember a real-life mistake that was much worse. 

Last year, Aretha Franklin died. When Fox News ran a story about the Queen of Soul’s passing, though, they goofed:

Why, yes, that is Patti LaBelle in the right-hand corner.

Listen, mistakes happen. But Fox News double-goofed by then offering an apology with its own screw-up: “Our intention was to honor the icon using a secondary image of her performing with Patti LaBelle in the full screen graphic,” the network’s statement read, “but the image of Ms. Franklin was obscured in that process, which we deeply regret.” The problem? The two singers never performed together during the event in question, which was a 2014 “Women of Soul” concert at the White House.

It almost makes you think that Fox News can sometimes be racist and a generally slipshod, untrustworthy news organization.

#3. If you want an acting award, play a real person.

All three of Bombshell’s lead actresses are part of the Oscar conversation, which shouldn’t be surprising: The film is based on a true story. Voters tend to favor actors who play real people — although Robbie’s character, of course, is fiction — but I decided to do a quick look back through recent Academy Award history to see how the numbers shake out.

Every year, there are 20 acting nominations — five each for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress — and in the last decade, 78 of those nods went to actors playing real people. (Quick note: I decided not to include characters who are composites of real people or fictionalized versions of real people. Otherwise, that 78 figure would have been higher.) So, about 39 percent of all nominations since 2010 went to actors playing actual individuals. And in terms of total wins, 17 went to real-life portrayals, or 43 percent of the time. In fact, only once in the last decade have we had an Oscar ceremony that didn’t feature at least one acting award going to someone playing a real person — before then, it hadn’t happened since 1998.

How are things looking for next year’s Academy Awards? The nominations aren’t announced until January, but judging by the current frontrunners, as forecasted by awards tracker GoldDerby’s list of experts, seven of the 20 total nominees will be based on actual people. And considering that most observers figure Renée Zellweger is a lock to win Best Actress as Judy Garland in Judy, we’ll have at least one real-life winner as well.

This trend isn’t a surprise: Voters think it’s impressive when actors transform themselves into someone that we all know. (“Wow, Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks … but now he’s Fred Rogers!”) I just hope that whoever wins the big prize playing me in The Tim Grierson Story: America’s Favorite Film Critic remembers to dedicate his Oscar to me. After all, I gave the guy so much material to work with.