More than a year before stories of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual misconduct rocked Hollywood, Fox News was rattled by allegations that the conservative channel’s CEO Roger Ailes had sexually harassed female employees, including former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson and The Kelly File anchor Megyn Kelly. Now, the docudrama Bombshell explores this turbulent time that rocked the news industry in the build-up to the 2016 presidential election. The Big Short screenwriter Charles Randolph ushers audiences behind the scenes of Fox News, into the offices and homes of Roger Ailes and his accusers. But how deep does this exploration of workplace sexism go? And who is this movie really for?Directed by Jay Roach (Game Change, Trumbo), Bombshell explores the allegations against Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) by splitting the film’s narrative into three main threads, with each woman representing a different point in the cycle of Ailes’ behavior toward women. With a clipped smile, Nicole Kidman stars as veteran anchorwoman Gretchen Carlson, who tells her lawyers her career has been marred by demands she “give a little head” to get ahead through decades of being objectified and patronized by her male coworkers and Ailes. Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, and so expertly nails the TV personality’s physical idiosyncrasies and deep, driven tone that it’s frankly borderline shapeshifting. Lastly, Margot Robbie brings a bright smile and wide-eyes to the role of “evangelical Millennial” Kayla Pospisil, a fictional character said to be an amalgamation of real Ailes employees, who is young and new to the company, and thus most vulnerable to Roger’s advances.
Conceptually, this three-part storytelling approach makes sense. It presents how screenwriter Randolph imagines Ailes sees his female employees, as hot commodities that are essentially disposable and replaceable. For every Gretchen he fires, there’s a line of Kaylas queuing up outside his private elevator. However, in execution, this approach falls apart, losing balance as the narrative leans hard into Megyn’s thread.
Though Gretchen serves as the inciting incident, it’s Megyn who quickly becomes the focal point of the story, with her smoky tone luring us into the first scene of the film. Her voice-over and direct-address monologues prove our guide to Fox News, its many Midtown offices, and Roger’s accomplishments, past, and mindset. She’s the narrator and sometimes-protagonist, shouldering the story through her much-publicized 2016 run-in with Donald Trump, the panic in the Fox newsroom as Roger is publicly accused, and beyond. Then, sometimes, Randolph’s script remembers Kayla exists and tosses out a thin story for its young ingenue.
Like The Big Short, the film tries to bring some zip with graphics, like popping up tweets from Trump or a Fox News chyron briefly “burned” into the corner of the screen. Then, it abruptly shifts gears to the aching human drama lost amid the headlines, making for an awkward mishmash of tones. In The Big Short, Robbie talked finance terms while nude in a bubble bath. In Bombshell, she’s asked to bare her body to display how dehumanizing sexual harassment is. In a purposefully stomach-churning scene, Roger asks Kayla to show him her legs by pulling up her skirt. When she’s reluctant, he chides like a disappointed father, “It’s a visual medium, Kayla,” before the camera pushes further and further, to the point of seeming gratuitous. It’s a moment that uses Robbie’s body to sell a point, not unlike putting her in a bubble bath did, for spectacle and shock value. This makes me think the filmmakers are missing the point, because they, too, are reducing a woman onscreen to her body.
Beyond this, Kayla gets a bit of backstory about her deeply conservative family. But chiefly, Bombshell focuses on Megyn, offering her thought process on office politics and how her war with Trump impacted her marriage. This intimate look into the controversial news anchor’s life might suggest to audiences that Kelly was involved in the film’s production. But Theron says she’s never spoken with her, and Kelly says she may never see the film. Carlson wasn’t asked to participate either (although it must be noted she signed an NDA with Fox News).
So, while some of the dialogue is pulled from news articles about other women who came forward, Randolph took major liberties in presenting the point of view of the film’s key figures, which makes it all the more frustrating that they feel like mouthpieces instead of people. Randolph’s three-pronged heroine approach seems to understand that sexual harassment is often driven by a power imbalance, exposing how each woman’s different status changed Ailes’ approach. But the treatment of his characters proves Randolph’s grasp of the subtle insidiousness of workplace harassment is shallow at best.
Nonetheless, the performances in Bombshell are solid. Kidman and Robbie bring gumption and tenderness. John Lithgow delivers a glowering menace as Roger Ailes. Kate McKinnon offers spunk amid the bleakness in a supporting role, and Theron might well eke out an Oscar nom for so expertly nailing Kelly’s steely bravado. So props to Roach on casting, at least.
I suspect Roach and Randolph wanted to make this movie to educate a public too busy to keep up on all the headlines about this seemingly big moment in the war against workplace harassment. But it’s hard to imagine Fox News fans would give this film a shot when it’s all about decrying the channel’s long-time leader. Meanwhile, liberals who even glanced at the headlines won’t learn much new from Bombshell, save for the names of Kelly’s children.