The search goes on for a film that adequately handles the topic of sexual harassment.
Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, Roger Ailes: three names that occupied prime real estate on the American conservative news circuit for years, and who, in 2016, were catapulted into the international spotlight. This was when Ailes, former CEO of Fox News, was ultimately exposed as a prolific sexual abuser of 20 years through a lawsuit filed by Carlson. Backed by 21 other female employees at Fox who risked their jobs for the truth, Kelly and Carlson became the trailblazers of a pre-Weinstein, pre-#MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, the effects of which are still being felt today. It was only a matter of time, then, before Hollywood would sink its teeth into the world of abuse allegations that has dominated headlines since. Releasing in the middle of awards season, starring three of the biggest actors in the industry, and focusing on one of the most influential news stories in decades, Bombshell looked set to be a powerhouse of a film. Unfortunately, it’s not.
The main problem with the film is the way it tries to simplify and streamline a highly complex issue in order to paint Ailes as the only villain at Fox, and Carlson and Kelly as the heroes — which in many ways they are, but their backstories are far more complex than the film admits. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was a prominent anti-gay and anti-trans figure. She used her mainstream platform as a Fox News anchor to condemn gender neutral bathrooms on university campuses, and labelled attempts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which sought to protect LGBTQ+ Americans, as a “distraction” from real issues. Yet the film ignores this, making out that Carlson was against the Fox News agenda through her decision to go make-up free on a news segment and to advocate for a ban on assault rifles. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is similarly depicted as ideologically-removed from the right-wing rhetoric of Fox, through the film’s positioning of her as an enemy of the Republican party. Kelly has faced consistent backlash for her offensive comments, including but not limited to her defence of blackface on live television, and her labelling of anyone who doesn’t agree with her that Jesus was white as “ridiculous”, despite the fact he is a historical figure traced back to northern Israel. The film ignores the controversial pasts of these women in order to keep them likeable, but in doing so it presents a story of half-truths. Likewise, the film’s focus on these characters as women allows them to overlook the complexities of their race and class which allowed them to profit from and perpetuate a right-wing narrative for so long.
This is symptomatic of a key issue with the film. There was the opportunity to tell a fascinating story about the conflicting morality of women who brought down one sexual abuser, whilst simultaneously working for an anti-feminist network that fought to put another accused sexual abuser into the White House; a story about women who took down a pervasively toxic work environment, yet, in so many other ways, contributed to the dangerous rhetoric of tribal politics that still plagues America. Theron, Kidman, and Robbie are more than capable of exploring the complexities of these fascinating women, yet they are trapped in a mediocre film that doesn’t have anything important to say other than: “sexual harassment is bad”. Prominent American professors have come out against Fox News, branding it as right-wing “propaganda” and “the closest thing to state TV” yet the film doesn’t have the nerve to engage with this conversation beyond throwaway comments and near-invisible subtext. Perhaps the film wanted to put politics aside and focus on the universal problem of sexual harassment and abuse of power. If so, this was the wrong story to choose as the background: it is impossible to de-politicise a story that centres around Fox News and the 2016 presidential election. I am in no way suggesting that an individual’s political leaning lessens their status as a victim, but the film’s surface level engagement with a highly complex subject matter leaves the end product feeling shallow, frustrating and — at times — dishonest.
Bombshell does deserve praise for its performances, though. Theron embodies Kelly so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Margot Robbie, however, who plays new-recruit Kayla, the only lead character not based on a real person but rather serves as a representative of the countless young female victims at Fox, shines brightest. Although her transition from Fox News fanatic to whistleblower is poorly fleshed-out, she brings some much needed emotion into the film, and her casting couch scene with Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) serves as Bombshell’s most powerful moment. Tonally, however, the film is a mess: it jumps from political satire to made-for-TV-movie, to mockumentary and back again without staying put for more than 20 minutes at a time. The film imitates the fast-paced script and fourth-wall breaks of other recent successful political dramas such as The Big Short and Vice, but whilst these techniques were once fresh and exciting, here they feel trite and smug. Jay Roach’s direction is also questionable at times: his use of crash zooms on actor’s faces during dramatic moments are ripped straight from The Office and drain all tension from the screen, and his inclusion of scenes that victim shame Megyn Kelly and praise Fox owner Rupert Murdoch are tone deaf. Perhaps it was too much to expect a nuanced commentary on sexual harassment from the man who directed the Austin Powers trilogy.
The story of Roger Ailes, and the women who brought about his downfall, speaks to the shifting power dynamics in the workplace. The story of Fox News and the Trump administration speaks to the era of tribal politics and fake news we are living through. Bombshell, in its halfhearted depiction of both, speaks only to the exploitative, reactionary tendencies of big budget Hollywood who have created a film too scared to say anything meaningful for fear of alienating its audience. There is an important story to be told here about the internal conflict between morality and job security; about dangerous journalism and dangerous men in power. Hopefully, someday, someone will tell it.