Bombshell: the Imperfect Teachable Moment

Bombshell, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen CarlsonLast weekend, my husband and I went to see “Bombshell,” the movie that depicts sexual harassment at Fox News and how two of the network’s female anchors outed it.

We liked the movie, despite the lukewarm critical reviews. Given the Tomatometer ratings, however, we weren’t the only ones to disagree with the experts. As you can see, the critics gave Bombshell a 67% Fresh while audiences rated it at 84% Fresh. What could account for such a difference?

Three Reasons Why

First, let me say that any woman who has ever worked in American business, regardless of the industry, will probably find this movie encouraging. It tells you that, as did the the #MeToo movement, you are not alone.

Second, I point to the choice of writer and director as indicative of the problem. What made the Liongate studio think it was a good idea to create a movie about women’s experiences with sexual predators but put a male writer (Charles Randolph) and a male director (Jay Roach) in charge? Imagine what Greta Gerwig, Diablo Cody, or Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins could have done with this material? I’m sure any of them could have added depth of personal experience. Was that too scary a thought for Lionsgate? More likely, they never considered the masculine presence a problem.

Bombshell, Tomatometer, Third, I wonder whether the awkward reviews come from the fact that many of the movie reviewers are men. As my husband said later, “You have to understand that, for most men, this problem is invisible.” So, men who have never experienced sexual harassment critique a movie about how women experience it and respond to it. Can this explain why some found Bombshell “superficial?”

If I were a math geek instead of a word person, I could probably develop a formula that solves the Tomatometer discrepancy with men on one side of the equation and women on the other. Instead, I’m writing this blog post.

The Critics Weigh In

In fairness, I cannot tar all the male critics all with the same brush. For example, Bombshell got good reviews from Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times), Adam Graham (Detroit News), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times).

On the other hand, we have The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern saying, “A movie with a compelling story to tell turns into a blunt-force polemic that can’t stop hammering its message home.” Ouch.

Keep in mind that Mr. Morgenstern is employed by the same Rupert Murdoch who hired and empowered Roger Ailes until the merde hit the fan. I wonder if the movie critic got called up to the Sixth Floor for a little chat with the boss before he started typing.

To be fair, Bombshell also received bad or mediocre reviews from Moira MaDonald (Seattle Times), Linda Holmes (NPR), and Dana Stevens (Slate). They all seemed to be looking for some “depth” that they didn’t see. Funny, but I saw it and so did plenty of other women. One friend commented on social media that she had a pit in her stomach the whole time she watched it. I know the feeling.

Identifying the Problem

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Bombshell, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson

The women of Bombshell

I think I know what the problem is.

Some of the critics saw this as a movie about the fall of Roger Ailes. Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter, for example, said in his positive review, “A smart, snappy depiction of the Fox News ogre getting his comeuppance.”

Well, (spoiler alert) that certainly happens, but the man is not the focus. Dana Stevens of Slate thought it was a whistleblower story. Yes, certainly, but that was only part of it.

Bombshell is about the women whom the late Mr. Ailes victimized, particularly Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. It takes their point of view and shows the impact of that abuse on them mentally, emotionally, and professionally.

Bombshell makes the viewer understand what it feels like to be singled out and coerced into doing things that violate your morals, your ethics, your marriage vows, and your sense of self.

Mark Jackson (Epoch Times) gets it right with his comment that,

“These stories need telling in the worst way, and in this case most of the badness of ‘Bombshell’ can be attributed to a breezy, issues-lite, cheap-feeling script by Charles Randolph.”

After all, how do you go deep on an issue you have never felt or even seen?

Not Perfect but What We Have

While Bombshell is not perfect — especially the title — it makes its point. Sure, women should have written and directed this movie. That may have solved some of the problems that critics saw when they described it as not going into real depth.

And maybe it could have focused on Gretchen Carlson, the woman with the courage to sue Roger Ailes. But how do you tell the story of what’s going on at Fox News from the viewpoint of someone who has been fired and is sitting at home?

Teachable moment, sexual harassmentOn the other hand, the movie might actually teach some of the men in the audience a few thing about a problem that remains largely invisible to them. It might also help them to understand that the damage from such harassment isn’t just limited to the professional arena. At the end of the movie, Roger Ailes protests that he couldn’t have harassed Megyn Kelly because her career was thriving. That tends to be a common male opinion but the damage goes far deeper than losing your job.

Women Deserve to Work Without Fear

And while some women can’t gin up sympathy for these “notoriously racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic Fox personalities,” I will just say this:

Any woman, even those with whom you disagree, who you despise, who have beliefs that oppose yours, who promote positions you find despicable, deserve to do their jobs without fear of being fired if they don’t provide sex for the boss.

Bombshell can, despite its flaws, be a teaching vehicle. For what it is, though, this movie it does the job. The acting is excellent. Take your boyfriend/husband/son/nephew to watch it. Then listen to what they say and get ready to answer some questions.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

2 thoughts on “Bombshell: the Imperfect Teachable Moment

  1. I agree with you here Aline. But what I wonder is how accurate of a depiction of the actual events that occurred do you feel t was? I mean, did they consult with Gretchen and Megan on it (I don’t know)? Also, in the case of Gretchen, I had thought there was an age discrimination thing going on there at least in part. Did that come up n the movie at all?

    • In a movie, Michael, directors and writers pare the story down to the essentials that drive dramatic tension and move the plot along. So, no mention of age discrimination, as that would have been a distraction. I have no idea whether anyone consulted with Gretchen or Megan but both women wrote books, so there was source material. The character of Kayla was a composite, putting the experiences of other women into one person. This is not a biopic. It deals with the subject of sexual harassment in the work environment and I thought it did an excellent job. The look on Kayla’s face when she realizes what she will have to do to get ahead at Fox News is priceless.

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