BOMBSHELL’s Impact Barely Breaks the Surface

The Fox News sexual assault docudrama acknowledges important issues, but offers little insight or complexity.

While the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandals predated the #MeToo movement by a year, they’ve no less become a part of the cultural re-evaluation the movement has caused. The events are rich in complexity — not only did Ailes pervert his power as Chairman and CEO of Fox News, but Fox itself is notorious for its own contributions to how women should be perceived and treated in American society. The more that women came forward to accuse Ailes of decades of sexual harassment, the more it felt like Fox and its employees would reach an ideological breaking point. At what point would enough be enough — that Fox employees would reckon with their own beliefs, cut off the head of their Network, and put an end to the part of the culture they protected for decades?

Bombshell, the new adaptation based on the Ailes scandal, clearly has ambitions of tackling its subject matter with the respect and complexity it deserves. Both director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph are no strangers to sociopolitical docudramas, and they’ve assembled a veritable who’s-who of talent to bring a sense of critical hindsight to the beginnings of a massive cultural moment. The end result, however, massively fails its own subject matter, with a compelling story streamlined and simplified to oblivion.

The majority of Bombshell follows Kelly File anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and ex-Fox and Friends host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Kelly, fresh off a debate with Presidential hopeful Donald Trump about his disparaging views towards women, needs increased protection from Trump’s growing supporters. Carlson finds herself in an internal battle at Fox, where even after her dismissal from Fox’s morning programming, Carlson’s relatively progressive, open-minded program is vilified by Ailes (John Lithgow) .

Both Megyn and Gretchen are constantly at war both in and out of Fox headquarters — Megyn, desperate to not “become the story,” capitulates to Trump in a second interview, while Gretchen finds herself fired from Fox after refusing to capitulate to Roger Ailes’ demands for both her and her program. Our third lens is Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious self-professed “millennial evangelical” and social media influencer newly employed by Fox. Her drive leads her to Ailes’ office — where she quickly learns what price she may have to pay to continue her path to success.

The three women at the heart of Bombshell give their all towards their roles, and sincerely attempt to divine whole characters out of the personas Fox publicly positioned these women to be. Theron is unrecognizable as Kelly, who becomes caught between her roles as anchor and protective mother in the midst of widespread public condemnation for doing what she believes is the right thing for women. Likewise, Kidman is powerful as the first public figure to speak out against Ailes, facing the potential of never working again in her industry head-on if it means justice. Robbie, though, arguably has the more challenging role of playing a composite character, standing in for the myriad other Ailes victims who saw their dreams and ambition held hostage by a corrupt man in power. Robbie also uses Kayla as an opportunity, however briefly, to gain insight into what could be appealing about conservatism to younger generations when most are opposed to it outright.

Bombshell is energetic and engaging in its opening moments, positioning its three leads in ethically compromising situations ripe with conflict. Its efforts, though, unfortunately add up to naught. Other than pointed critiques at Fox and its audience as lead-ins to the Network’s “frighten and titillate” culture, Bombshell refuses to engage with the unique moral positions these women and supporting characters hold as assault victims who ostensibly shared the same values as the network that would come to target them. So much time is spent on the immediacy of Megyn, Gretchen, and Kayla’s situation that Fox in general feels like window dressing — an amazing feat when featuring a character who claimed that Jesus and Santa Claus were white, among other controversies.

One can’t help but feel this is by design on the filmmakers’ part — in a culture so immensely politically divided, I can’t blame Roach and Randolph for wanting to ensure that as wide of an audience as possible becomes invested in our heroines’ stories without being hung up on their beliefs from frame one. The quick rebuttal to this, though, is that this conflict is what makes these women such potentially compelling characters. I’m wholly fascinated by the choices these women made that led them to work at Fox — especially, albeit in a largely fabricated moment, when Kayla’s “guardian angel” co-worker (an electric Kate McKinnon) explains why a closeted lesbian liberal would take (and be unable to leave) a position at Fox.

Instead, and much more problematically, Bombshell’s ideological vacuum refuses to develop or define these women beyond their victimhood. Yes, Gretchen fights on in spite of the consequences she faces. But Megyn, though a victim herself and increasingly conflicted about her job, refuses to publicly come forward — fearing the worst for her family and coworkers if she does. Kayla’s outrageous ideological foundation vanishes into the background once Ailes targets her, where she then passively watches as the Fox empire threatens to crumble around her. The film recognizes the damning plight of these women and champions their decision to fight back, but it refuses to delve into anything adjacent to that for fear of losing audiences’ sympathies. I understand a film can only go into so much story before it loses focus. But Bombshell strips away these women’s personalities and beliefs until they’re solely defined either by their public persona or the atrocities that happened to them. This isn’t just playing it safe — it’s an incredibly reductive approach towards Bombshell’s central subjects.

This extends to the film’s central villain, Roger Ailes. In Bombshell, Ailes is depicted as a slovenly, monstrous all-powerful authoritarian. This depiction, as true as it may be, crosses that fine line of villainy into cartoonish malaise. From the 2002 Anthrax scares to a belief that the Obama Administration has a hit out on him, Bombshell’s Ailes spouts off paranoid conspiracies for laughs — which, alongside the film’s opening ridicule of Fox’s venomous “aw-shucks” Conservatism, makes the whole scandal feel like audiences should be slapping their foreheads in hindsight for not noticing things sooner. Like the above depictions of the film’s leads, it’s an easy way for the filmmakers to get audiences on board with the film’s depictions of woefully uneven power dynamics. But the unintentional consequence here is how easily it lets everyone in Ailes’ orbit off the hook. Ailes may have been the head of this culture — but there was a culture that allowed him to come to power, and one that thrived under his leadership. By depicting Ailes as a central villain, Bombshell risks depicting his fall — and these women’s victory — as an end-all-be-all solution of sexual harassment in the workplace rather than the systemic problem it really is.

All of the above issues, of which there are many more, ultimately speak to Bombshell’s conflicting desire to earnestly address sexual harassment with an equal fear to delve into the complexities that allow it to remain a pervasive issue. As incredible as these women’s story is, and how much their victory meant, the toxic environment that created such events still thrives outside the theater walls. One would have hoped that this film could’ve been a vital window into such uncomfortable truths.

Instead, Bombshell is very much an echo chamber of easily earned head-nodding and hand-wringing, wholly convinced of the difference its made before putting in any work to do so.

Previous post LITTLE WOMEN Brims With Joy and Vulnerability
Next post AFS Kicks off Creative Media Center