It was an allegation that rocked the already troubled Fox News. Gretchen Carlson, an anchor at the cable news network, accused chairman and CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. And it was even more shocking when one of the network’s biggest stars, Megyn Kelly, added her voice and her own story to a stack of complaints against him.
“Bombshell” tells this story in dramatic fashion. Nicole Kidman stars as Gretchen Carlson, whose final days at Fox are increasingly difficult and tense. There are comments about her clothes, anger over certain segments, and whispers among the staff that she is difficult. Carlson knows her days at Fox are numbered, but she will not go quietly.
Parallel to Carlson is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), caught up in a fight with presidential candidate Donald Trump. It is clear from the start that Carlson is considered a trouble maker and Kelly is the star. But there is also a third player in the mix: a young, Bible belt Conservative named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Kayla is the pretty ingenue whose only dream was to work for Fox News, and her background makes her a perfect amalgamation of their target demographic. While Gretchen and Megyn wage their battles with bosses and the public, Kayla’s battle is a more personal one. She is our peek through the window into what was really happening to young up and comers who just wanted a shot at the spotlight.
The story of Fox News and the downfall of Roger Ailes is an important one, regardless of where you land on the political spectrum. This is a story that should be told. And it has all the markers of a perfect Hollywood political thriller with a villain, a hero, and allies with whom she must join forces. But in the case of “Bombshell,” this doesn’t really work. Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly are widely disliked by this film’s target audience and any attempts to humanize them are both weak and unsuccessful. Mostly because the audience won’t want to sympathize with them in the first place.
So how do you tell a story about a terrible, abusive man and the things he did to women and make it palatable to people who really can’t stand those women? That’s where Kayla comes in. She is constructed of several real people but is not a specific woman who worked at Fox. And this fictionalized character is somehow the only one of the three that feels like a real person. Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is closed off, robotic, unemotional. Even when her world is collapsing around her and she has nowhere to go, the audience is left in this weird conundrum of wanting to see Ailes go down, but not particularly caring about the woman who set it in motion.
The same can be said for Theron’s Megyn Kelly. Theron does a decent impression of the Fox star, capturing the brisk and no-nonsense cadence in her speech, and certainly the makeup is jaw-dropping. But the character is only skin deep as there is never a true exploration of her experiences or her feelings about them. Her story opens on the infamous 2016 presidential debate in which she found herself the target of candidate Donald Trump and his legions of fans. For those brief few months, Kelly was suddenly a feminist icon, praised by unexpected allies and scorned by her colleagues.
“Bombshell” gets into the facts of those rocky months. But because this isn’t really a biopic, there is no heart behind any of it. We see a dramatization of Kelly’s struggle and fears, but without ever getting a real sense of how she felt or what she thought about any of it. The result feels more like a Wikipedia entry than a story of an unlikable woman who also found herself saying Me Too and stockpiling guilt because of her silence.
The only character who is ever given an emotional arc is Kayla, the mosaic who fits that perfect Fox News mold. Kayla is unsatisfying too, though. Her sexuality is in question, yet this never really goes anywhere. It seems to have been inserted as an attempt at added depth, but doesn’t work because it only serves to give her more screen time with the always delightful Kate McKinnon (playing an entirely fictional character named Jess). The script never really goes into why this is important. Jess talks about her own personal conundrum of being stuck at a network that actively declares war against everything she is. But she mostly just shrugs and keeps going. And so does Kayla, even when things with Roger cross the line from uncomfortable to harassment. Kayla exists to show female suffering. Who she is doesn’t really matter as long as we get to feel what she feels.
“Bombshell” plays like a dramatic reenactment of an SNL sketch. It is emotionless, passionless, and provides only a cursory look at women who find themselves victims of workplace harassment. It’s unfortunate that the first major studio release of a Me Too story was written and directed by men for men. Director Jay Roach and writer/producer Charles Randolph are so invested in making sure people know what harassment feels like, they seem to have forgotten to show us why we should care about this story of people we may not like.
The real reason the story of Gretchen Carlson and Roger Ailes and Fox News matters is not because Ailes made some women lift their skirts in his office in exchange for the chance to go on the air. It’s not because he tried to kiss them when they told him no. It’s because Roger Ailes built a network that influenced the direction of our country, that directly led to where we are today. Part of the way he did that was by grooming certain women and giving them the power to influence millions. As long as they did something for him first. “Bombshell” settles for being voyeuristic when it could have been smart and powerful. It is a missed opportunity.