A cleverly produced account of women whose sexual harassment accusations ultimately brought down Fox News chief Roger Ailes, “Bombshell” offers an all too often superficial look at a subject (sadly) perpetually topical. Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman play Fox as Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, the two most prominent figures at the center of the scandal that rocked the network (albeit briefly) in the second half of 2016.
Kelly is the closest to a main character we get, and the film follows her as she walks into her role as moderator of the August 2015 Republican debate. This is where Kelly challenged the candidate for the Donald Trump era over his sexism, inadvertently starting a feud with Trump that unexpectedly angered viewers on the network.
While Kelly is the central figure in the film, it is “Fox & Friends” star Carlson who is the first to bring allegations against Ailes (played by John Lithgow, assisted by some impressive prosthetics). After Carlson is fired from the network, she sues Ailes for sexual harassment, ultimately opening the floodgates for more women to come forward.
The third main character in the film is Kayla (Margot Robbie), a newly hired associate producer and self-proclaimed “Jesus space influencer” who aspires to become an on-air talent. Kayla is a composite character, and although Carlson’s harassment took place years before, Kayla’s storyline is representative of the women Ailes is currently grappling with.
It’s heartbreaking to see the humiliation and disillusion that Kayla faces as she experiences harassment from Ailes in exchange for promises of career advancement. Robbie gives the strongest performance in the movie – perhaps because she’s not beholden to existing people – but her character’s writing never feels cohesive.
Very early on, she falls in bed with another producer (Kate McKinnon), a secret lesbian and a secret Hillary supporter. Kayla’s bisexuality is rushed through; we have no idea, for example, of how this aspect of herself interacts with where she has chosen to be employed.
Charles Randolph’s screenplay (“The Big Short”) portrays the pervasive culture of sexism at Fox: the constant stream of dehumanizing compliments and micro-attacks that the women who work there face on a daily basis. But the film never makes the link between the internal culture of the network and its role in supporting the societal structures that make it possible. Structures that actively dehumanize women and people of color in particular.
McKinnon’s character delivers the clearest distillation of network ethics during an intro to the newsroom. The goal, she explains, is always to find stories that will scare your grandmother and annoy your grandfather; those that will “scare and titillate” viewers to the right degree.
“Bombshell” works hard to completely absolve its characters of their own complicity in creating the toxic product produced by Fox. Which isn’t to say their politics should impact any sympathy we feel for the sexual harassment they’ve experienced, but it flattens the complexity of who we know these women.
Focusing only on Fox’s internal politics seems like a way to avoid dealing with the larger issues that surround its history. This makes it easy for filmmakers to walk past the product the network is putting out into the world and the very real damage it is causing. Basically, the film is about a very specific brand of white, conservative feminism, and the refusal to acknowledge that sounds like a glaring omission.
The movie also doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Fox News’ toxic environment – a network that goes far beyond parody or satire at this point. At first, the filmmakers seem to try a slightly satirical tone, but it is eventually dropped in favor of a dark seriousness. There are stylistic touches that seem too awkward, like the sporadic use of straight-on-camera storytelling. And the storytelling can be fun and blatant, like when Kelly argues about speaking while sitting in traffic, and we get zoomed in on a flashing “stay in lane” sign.
There is an interesting story here, and it is complicated by the decision of women to look away when it is to their advantage. Predators like Ailes also can’t hold onto power without the help of women, and it’s frustrating that Randolph’s script avoids any opportunity to hold his characters accountable for their role in maintaining the status quo.
Bending over backwards to position its protagonists as feminist heroes, the film ends up feeling oddly shy and superficial. There is some value in Roach’s attempt to find humanity in women whose public figures have come to despise large swathes of the country. But it took a more precise script and a little more curiosity about what drives these women to really do their story justice.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Comments on this article can be sent to [email protected]