BOMBSHELL Review: A Flaccid And Morally Confused Recap Of The Fox News Scandal
There is a moment near the end of Bombshell when Margot Robbie's Kayla – a fictional composite character – delivers a monologue via voiceover that begins with "Here's the thing about being sexually harassed at work..." It's an accurate representation of the woefully limited perspective of screenwriter Charles Randolph and director Jay Roach – a filmmaker who transitioned from making Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers to a successful career in humorous political movies for HBO. Like the women they portray on-screen, the female stars of Bombshell deserve so much better. And like Roach's recent cinematic recaps of political affairs, this one belongs on a much smaller screen.
Roach and Randolph mimic the Political Outrage For Dummies style of Adam McKay's The Big Short and Vice, framing Bombshell with cutesy voiceovers that break the fourth wall to address the audience directly, holding our hands as they guide us through the Fox News scandal. This approach may very well appeal to those unfamiliar with the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct brought against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). The most notable of his accusers were, of course, conservative pundits Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the latter of whom inspired numerous women to come forward with their own allegations when she filed a lawsuit against Ailes in 2016. Robbie's Kayla is our entry to the world of Fox News, where her ambition takes her from working under Carlson – who is becoming increasingly vocal about the objectification of women – to serving as an associate producer to Bill O'Reilly. It's there that Kayla meets Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), a closeted liberal lesbian who works for Fox because no other network would have her. At first glance, Jess reads like a thoughtful addition; a clever way to humanize the employees at a network best known for peddling conspiracy theories and stoking aggressive conservative bias. Jess and Kayla have a casual one-night stand, where the latter learns the truth about her liberal colleague while protesting that she's "not a lesbian," much like her former boss, Carlson, protests time and again that she's not a feminist despite her increasingly vocal feminist ideals.
Kayla takes it upon herself to become Jess' protector at work, where she hides a photo of her gay colleague posing with another woman (even though Jess maintains it's just a friend in the photo). Meanwhile, Kayla herself has been invited to "audition" for Roger Ailes, bringing us to one of Bombshell's two tense scenes (the other, set in an elevator, was famously used as the film's teaser): In it, Roger asks Kayla to stand up and give him a "twirl" before urging her to raise her dress higher, and higher still until her underwear is exposed. Randolph's heavy-handed script goes to great lengths to assert that there's a reason the desks are transparent and all the women wear skirts at Fox News – a point bludgeoned to death with shots of bare legs edited together as Ailes, his throat coated with sugar from the donuts he constantly scarfs down to remind the audience of his monstrous gluttony, demands wider shots to accommodate all those sexy legs.
As Kayla experiences repeated harassment from Ailes, often unseen and behind closed doors, Megyn Kelly is experiencing a moral crisis: Should she, too, come forward with her own allegations to support Gretchen, or should she remain silent until the investigation into Ailes' behavior has concluded? Theron and Kidman perform the majority of the heavy-lifting in humanizing these women, the former lending a measure of reasonability to a woman who once said, on-air, that Santa Claus couldn't possibly be black (a moment briefly depicted but never addressed in the film). Kidman, meanwhile, has built a career on playing women in the midst of discovering the limits of masculine shit they can tolerate; at this point she could play Carlson in her sleep.
Randolph's script isn't interested in acknowledging the flawed behavior of Ailes' victims and their complicity in conservative fear-mongering, which it treats as little more than shrewd business practice. It's as if fully humanizing them – warts and all – is too daunting a task, thus Bombshell plays into the binary thinking that's come to define the modern discourse. This man is bad. These women are good. And the only character with a lick of moral complexity is a closeted gay woman who took the only television job on offer, sentencing herself to a longterm career in conservative television because no other network wants to hire someone who worked for Fox News. In reality, acts of sexual violence and harassment are attempts to establish dominance and exert power by asserting the victim as helpless. These acts do not discriminate based on race, class, or even gender (though women have long been the victims of sexual violence at a much higher rate than men), and they certainly don't discriminate based on political opinions – even if those opinions include bigoted ideology. It is not impossible to craft a narrative that explores sexual violence as indiscriminate while simultaneously ackowledging the problematic behaviors of the victims. To do so would actually humanize these women instead of painting them in broad, Diet Feminist strokes. At the risk of redundancy, it's possible to acknowledge that Carlson and Kelly were complicit in an unethical news culture while asserting that this doesn't make them complicit in their own victimhood. No one deserves to be sexually harassed or victimized, even if that someone is Megyn Kelly.
Unfortunately, Randolph and Roach appear too enamored by their own cuteness to pay much mind to the navigation of nuanced concepts. Yes, Bombshell has an excellent ensemble cast bolstered by a trio of stars that elevate the material just enough for this movie to slide into theaters, but take away Kidman, Robbie, and Theron, and you're left with a series of caricatures (some of which are admittedly impressive) better fitting a television screen – a notion reinforced by a cast largely made up of actors best known for their (very good) television roles. In the act of forgoing the aforementioned nuance and tricky ethical concepts, the filmmakers have, perhaps unwittingly, created a mess of their own messaging. It isn't until the final act that the troubling idea lurking beneath every interaction finally crystallizes, and Bombshell presents an equivocation as disturbing as it is bizarre; it suggests there are two types of women in this story – one forcibly subjected to debasement for her ambition and one who begrudgingly allows her debasement for financial gain. The film classifies Kayla, Carlson, and Kelly as the former, while suggesting that Jess belongs in the latter camp because she's participated in her own victimization; her entire career an unsympathetic act of self-mutilation. According to the script, Jess isn't a survivor, but a greedy woman who's gleefully cracked the code of the Fox News audience. When Kayla takes a triumphant stand in the film's third act, Jess cowardly retreats back into the closet, watching longingly as Kayla does her best Peggy Olson walk down the network hallway and we hear that voiceover – the one that cements Bombshell's reductive morality and cutesy approach as the sort of thing better suited to one of those videos about sexual harassment in the workplace that all new employees are required to watch by HR: "The thing about being sexually harassed at work is...". In that moment, Kayla is the brave hero and Jess is the weak-ass wage-slave who'd rather take a paycheck than stand up for herself – never mind that both women have been victimized, but perhaps internalized misogyny was too tricky a concept, as well.
This ending would be fine if it were true – if Jess, the film's lone gay character, wasn't a fictional creation like Kayla, who is somehow morally superior because she found the courage to leave a workplace where she was sexually harassed – but it's not. It's fake news.