Bombshell, Jay Roach’s dramatization of the fall of Fox News head Roger Ailes, went into wide release last weekend, propelled by a good early showing (at least for its actors) in the year-end awards: two Golden Globe nominations (Charlize Theron for Best Actress, Margot Robbie for Best Supporting Actress), four SAG nominations (for Theron, Robbie, Nicole Kidman, and Ensemble – and to put that into perspective, that’s a nomination that the acclaimed Marriage Story couldn’t net), four from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and more from several regional critics groups.
It’s all sort of astonishing, because Bombshell is an absolute toilet fire of a movie, a sub-HBO-movie effort that uses winking storytelling tricks (many familiar from screenwriter Charles Randolph’s earlier The Big Short), SNL-level celebrity impersonation, and kiddie pool-deep interrogation of the figures at its center to simplistically reduce a story of internalized misogyny, institutional corruption, and white feminism into a “Yas, kween” conflict of good guys and bad guys, when even its protagonists were, at best, heavy grey.
There’s much to say about the failures of the film in general – I’d direct you to Alison Wilmore at Vulture and Alissa Wilkinson at Vox for more on that – but one scene in particular is worth addressing, and wrestling with, because it so cleanly summarizes what’s wrong with Bombshell, and why the people making it had no business doing so.
The scene in question comes around the 37-minute mark. We’ve spent the first act getting to know the world of Fox News through the eyes and experiences of three key women: superstar nighttime anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), on-the-decline Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and producer Kayla (Margot Robbie), a fictional composite character (and “influencer in the Jesus space”) who’s trying to work her way up the Fox ladder. The ambitious and nervous Kayla has talked her way into a private meeting with Ailes (a jowled-up John Lithgow), who chats with her about social conservatism, the FNC ethos, and her future there. “I think I’d be freakin’ phenomenal on your network,” she insists.
“Stand up and give me a twirl,” he suggests. She does. “Now uh… pull your dress up, and let me see your legs,” he commands, from the seat in front of her. After a moment’s hesitation, she pulls her minidress up a bit, trying to laugh it off.
“It’s a visual medium, Kayla,” he barks. “C’mon.” And so she lifts it up more. “Higher,” he grunts.
Director Roach cuts to a close-up of Kayla’s face, registering discomfort – and then, slowly pans away from her face and down her body as she raises her hemline. Roach pans back up to her face, then cuts to a close-up of Ailes again grunting “Higher,” then cuts back to Kayla’s face, looking around in panic. Then Roach cuts to a medium shot of her backside, from behind, as she pulls the dress higher, while Ailes gawks in the background. And then he cuts to a close-up, from Ailes’s POV, of her front, as she hikes the skirt up higher to reveal a peek of her panties. Only then, after a cutaway reaction shot of Ailes, does the camera go back to her humiliated face.
The sequence is repugnant – not just for what’s happening onscreen (which was surely intended), but for the way it’s photographed, and what those choices convey. It’s Roach tsk-tsk-ing the monstrosity of Roger Ailes and the harassment he subjected his female subordinates too, while at the same time taking the opportunity, via invasive close-ups and Playboy Video Centerfold-style camerawork, to leer at Margot Robbie. It’s a director having his cake and eating it too.
What’s worse, he’s inviting us to enjoy Ailes’s view. By framing the peekaboo shot from Lithgow’s perspective, and by bracketing it on either side with images of the character looking and reacting, Roach is using the grammar of cinema to force the viewer into the scene as harasser – to see what he sees, and potentially to enjoy it. Roach would rather we see this scene through the eyes of the perpetrator than those of the victim; he’d rather create a semblance of his experience than hers.
In interviews about the scene, Roach has said, “I’ve never filmed anything as excruciating,” while screenwriter Randolph explained, “It had to be dark enough that we could put men who normally would not have these experiences inside Kayla’s heart and head, so they could experience it with her.” If that was the aim, the result is a miserable failure, constantly returning us to Ailes’s heart and head instead. To Roach, the scene “was about taking something from her, taking her dignity… I just wanted to make sure the emotional levels were there and that the empathy you would feel for this is just devastating.” All of that is certainly possible when you have an actress of Margot Robbie’s skill at your disposal. But for every second that the camera is lingering on her thighs, her ass, and her underwear, it’s not on her face and her eyes. That’s where the emotion is happening. That’s where the devastation is registering.
It would be hard to summon up a more poignant distillation of the concerns voiced, by more than one observer, when this project was announced as the work of a male screenwriter and a male director. Was there really not a single female filmmaker or writer that Bombshell’s producers could have found to tell this story? Those producers, notably, include Theron, who responded to those concerns thusly in the New York Times: “When you find the right man to tell that story, there’s real value in that.” (Asked about this scene directly, Theron replied, “My concern was making sure she was comfortable in the underwear she was wearing.”)
Roach and Randolph have done a fair amount of damage control themselves; the writer insist they “let Charlize and other female producers lead the way,” while Roach claims, “Charlize’s collaboration and power in the overall hierarchy was imperative. It was just so clear this was going to be a team effort.” And maybe that’s true. But the minidress scene makes it clear that if there was, to borrow Theron’s phrasing, a “right man” to tell this story, it certainly wasn’t one this concerned with capturing and immortalizing, in the film’s most pivotal moments, such an explicitly male gaze.