There are three conventional paths to take if you’re looking to tell a story of sexual harassment. The first is the triumphant fightback narrative; women standing up for their rights, successful legal action, monsters being toppled – you know the drill. Then there’s the more complicated approach, where you begin to unpick the tapestry of power and misogyny that makes such abuse commonplace. The third option is to focus on the personal impact: make it a moving story of lived trauma.
Bombshell tries all three. Each of its blonde bombshells characters are divvied up one of these three prongs. Nicole Kidman plays anchor Gretchen Carlson, who as the film begins has been relegated to a daytime slot as she builds a case against Fox News head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow): she helms the fightback narrative. The complicated approach is seen through the eyes of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who’s at once a victim of the misogynistic culture of the network and complicit in its operation. Then there’s the fictionalised producer, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), who becomes conduit for the horrifying experience of sexual abuse.
Despite feeling very familiar – a little bit Hidden Figures, a little bit Adam McKay’s last couple films, a little bit any contemporary ‘ripped from the headlines’ from the last decade – Bombshell avoids stumbling into too many obvious pitfalls. The screenplay, from Charles Randolph (who was responsible for one of those McKay films, The Big Short) strikes for complexity and nuance whenever possible. And the work of the three leads is undeniably excellent, though admittedly both Kidman and Robbie are largely tasked with being believable criers.
Why, then, does the finished product feel so unsatisfying?
The legalities surrounding the film have to be taken into account. While Randolph is clearly trying to feint at the idea that Ailes’ abuse is one offshoot of a systemically toxic culture at Fox, he’s hamstrung by the necessity to abide by defamation laws. So Ailes is targeted, Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) is mentioned – since they’ve both been successfully prosecuted and one of them’s dead – but otherwise we just have to accept that there are other ‘bad guys’ out and about. You can’t quibble too much about these obstacles; it’s either go entirely fictional or avoid a lawsuit, so I can accept the compromise when you’re making a film about events from less than five years ago.
The other two major problems for me are that the filmmaking is sub-par and the story is simply too big for a feature film runtime.
The filmmaking comes from one Jay Roach, responsible for the Austin Powers trilogy, some forgettable Bryan Cranston films and, more recently, political TV movies along the lines of what he’s going for here. At the behest of Randolph’s screenplay, he occasionally dabbles in McKay-esque playfulness – a Fox News logo burned into the screen, or Megyn addressing the camera early on – but clearly has no heart for it, swiftly (and thankfully) abandoning such gimmicks. Roach strikes me as a journeyman director; he clearly works well with his actors, but struggles to imbue a personal touch. There’s a scene where he wants to convey Megyn’s personal conflict over whether to come forward or not, and he does so with crude bluntness. As she’s stuck in traffic from work, Theron looks from a sign – reading STAY IN LANE – to her infant daughter, asleep and angelic in the backseat. This is a film that would’ve benefit from the exact kind of subtlety absent from a scene like this.
The runtime is a bigger issue, for me, since it necessitates the erosion of any such subtlety. I haven’t seen The Loudest Voice – a Showtime miniseries telling a similar story, with Russell Crowe playing Ailes and Naomi Watts playing Carlson – but I surely that mode would’ve better suited what Roach and Randolph are trying to achieve here.
Ultimately, Megyn’s storyline is the only one that’s given space to nurture real complexity. Gretchen isn’t really a person: she’s a plot device. She exists to set the wheels of justice in motion, to demonstrate the ideological heft of Fox News, and to underline the difficulty of bringing legal action against one’s employer in America. All noble goals, sure, but in the execution they land with the finesse of an A Current Affair segment.
There’s some good stuff in Robbie’s subplot, thanks in large part to her performance with a significant assist from Kate McKinnon. McKinnon plays a co-worker who Kayla has a brief affair with. She helps open Kayla’s eyes to the negative impacts of conservatism. It’s a trite storyline – an enthusiastic conservative realises that people actually suffer from bigotry! – but there’re enough character beats to sell it. It’s hard to lament how much better this story could’ve been with more time to tell it, though, especially when it slides into a stomach-churning and entirely unnecessary recounting of the abuse Kayla suffers at the hands of Ailes in its final moments. The conclusion that follows feels too pat to really land.
Megyn Kelly is an interesting character, at least. Theron plays her as this single-minded, relentless career woman with a sliver of self-doubt stabbing her from within. It’s great work! And the screenplay is smart enough to acknowledge – particularly through the intersection with Robbie’s sub-plot – that she’s as much a villain as she is a heroine in this particular narrative. But again, shoved into a feature film with two other storylines, the narrative isn’t given the necessary space to breathe.
The infamous showdown between Trump and Kelly dominates the early storytelling then pretty much disappears as soon as the sexual harassment arc takes over. I think it’s smart to play these two threads against one other, as the exact same motivation for Megyn not to speak out against Trump plays into why she feels reluctant to raise her hand in the action against Ailes. They just feel disconnected, though. It doesn’t help that Roach decides to frame the real villains of the piece as the female talent who vociferously support Ailes, which feels hypocritical in context.
I think Bombshell’s heart is definitely in the right place. It understands the perniciousness of Fox News in the contemporary media landscape, and it understands the perniciousness of sexual harassment and abuse in contemporary corporate structures. But it just tries to do so much without the grace, insight or runtime needed to execute its lofty ambitions. Not a total misfire, but ultimately a disappointment.