On a fateful Wednesday in December 2013, Megyn Kelly reached out to the children of America through her daytime cable news talk program The Kelly File with an urgent message: “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” It was an odd, racist stand for an adult woman to take, but hardly a career-ender; at her then home of Fox News, casual bigotry of this sort got an anchor little more than a glorified speeding ticket.
Skip ahead to 2015, a pivotal time in Kelly’s rise through the TV ranks and the start of the window during which the new film Bombshell has been set. By the time she took a boisterous candidate named Donald Trump to task during a Republican primary debate that summer, her image had already been well on the way to rehabilitation. A glossy feature in the New York Times Magazine claimed that she had “upended the popular notion of how a Fox News star is supposed to behave”, and that she represented “an appeal to the younger and (slightly) more ideologically diverse demographic Fox needs”. Her feud with the president-to-be landed her the cover of Vanity Fair in January of 2016, with the headline Blowhards, Beware: Megyn Kelly Will Slay You Now. She was supposed to be the palatable future of conservatism, an ideologue who could occupy the other side of the aisle with intelligence and civility.
Slightly complicating this narrative was Kelly’s actual behavior during this time and the year that would follow, which did not paint the picture of a cool-headed, forward-thinking member of the right. In summer 2016, around the time that she spoke out against sex predator Roger Ailes and earned a new wave of respect from the general public, Kelly had actor DL Hughley on her show for a debate about the recent murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police. During this conversation, she asserted that Brown could have been the aggressor in his own killing, then attempted to dismiss Hughley’s shock at the assertion. Worse still, all this was perfectly in keeping with the person she’d always been during her tenure at Fox, a period during which the order of the day included Islamophobia, transphobia and a host of other defects of character. Most troublingly of all, she continued to question the legitimacy of sexual assault claims and express sympathy for the accused even after she became embroiled in one such story.
All that notwithstanding, Kelly’s embrace by the mainstream led to her highest-profile gig yet as the host of her own NBC show, a disastrous program shuttered after she declared on-air that she considered dressing up in blackface to be no biggie. (Before the cancellation, she asked a Will and Grace fan if the program made him gay, gave Sandy Hook conspiracy-monger Alex Jones a televised platform, and needled “Hanoi Jane” about her past plastic surgeries.) The suits cut her loose to the tune of a $69m payout on her contract.
The gap between Kelly’s esteem from establishment media and her abhorrent track record in real life is so wide that Bombshell and its star Charlize Theron can tumble into it like a hiker into a crevasse. The Santa moment gets a noticeable amount of screen time in Jay Roach’s modern-day period piece, both via a snippet of the oft-replayed clip as well as a quick shot of black protesters in Kris Kringle suits outside NewsCorp’s midtown Manhattan headquarters. Its presence in the film feels like lip service, an obligatory acknowledgment of the fact that Megyn Kelly did, on one occasion in the remote past, do something wrong. But her deeper, more foundational moral lapses get largely swept under the rug. Despite the fact that she calls a cub reporter “snowflake” at one point, someone with no outside information watching this film would perceive Kelly as nothing more than a newswoman who ruffles the occasional feather in her pursuit of the story.
The film cannot afford to depict Kelly in all her contemptibility, because a villain of Roger Ailes’ caliber requires an equal and opposite hero. Bombshell focuses on the events precipitating the fall of the Fox godhead, tracing the expansion of the whisper network of women in the workplace that led to his deposing. Kelly leads the charge, supported by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) as she prepares her own lawsuit against Ailes behind closed doors, with the rest of the film’s run time devoted to a fictitious newbie named Kayla (Margot Robbie). Carlson hasn’t jammed her foot into her mouth nearly as frequently as Kelly, but she still worked to keep the Fox propaganda machine well-oiled and functioning during her many years on the network. Yet in all three cases, the movie behaves as if its ethical calculus will not square unless these three women can be molded into feminist role models. (A label that Kelly shrugs off every time someone uses it to describe her, which happens on multiple occasions.)
This proved a big pill to swallow for the first round of coverage that ran yesterday, as the press embargo lifted. Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote in her review, “Not even Charlize Theron can make me see Megyn Kelly as a hero,” and that she “just isn’t that exciting to root for”. BuzzFeed News’ Pier Dominguez echoed these sentiments, writing that “the movie ends up being, in some ways, an infomercial for [Kelly and Carlson’s] post–Fox News incarnations while also promoting the idea of a kinder, gentler Fox News without Ailes at the helm.” In the fine publication you’re reading right now, our own Peter Bradshaw ruled that the film “pulls its hardest punches”.
It all makes for a dramatic contrast with Theron’s party line on the media circuit, where she’s told Deadline, “I had to realize that, even through all this stuff, this was a person that did something really incredible, and I couldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Albeit inadvertently, that’s an astute soundbite; “all this stuff” captures the vagary of the film’s engagement with Kelly’s failings of common goodness, just as the film certainly considers what she’s done right to be far more important than all she’s done wrong.
There’s a right way to make this movie, one that confronts a truth both simple and complicated: that even the very worst people among us deserve the basic dignity of not getting sexually assaulted at the office. But this asks a lot of the viewer in terms of empathy, and it’s one of the cardinal beliefs of studio executives that people will not show up or stick around to watch a movie about someone they hate. This is hardly Orwellian doublethink, however, this notion that even the worst among us shouldn’t be violated by our colleagues. The phrase “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy” is already common parlance. Still, Roach feels safer softening Kelly’s image to guarantee that her baseline humanity comes across. Of course the ideal Fox News woman for his revisionist scrubbing – Margot Robbie’s upstanding, go-getter career gal – would have to be imaginary.