In the wake of Bombshell‘s disappointing box office returns last month, a Twitter user posed a fair question: for whom was this film made for?
It’s a fair question. All stories of sexual misconduct deserve to be told, but this one’s politics make it complicated. Is it meant to reach conservatives, some who have suggested that the #MeToo movement has gone too far? What about liberal filmgoers who would appreciate Fox News being held accountable but may bristle at the framing of the protagonists as heroes while participating in what they consider to be the poisoning of the American political discourse? Break it down by other demographics – race, gender, age – and you’ve got a downright exhausting exercise, which might explain why, despite its awards buzz and star power, the film hasn’t even crossed $30 million at the box office.
That tension bleeds into Bombshell’s retelling of the events that exposed the sexual misconduct at Fox News and ultimately felled former CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) in 2016. At the center of the scandal and its blow-up are three women: hugely popular news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), fading star Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and junior producer Kayla (Margot Robbie). Each woman has unique experiences within the conservative behemoth’s toxic atmosphere. Kelly faces massive backlash after her famous dust-up with Donald Trump at the Republican presidential debate, where she confronted him on his past sexist behavior. She becomes the story, experiencing harassment and abuse from Trump’s followers and receiving half-hearted support from Ailes. Carlson has been relegated to a dead-air afternoon slot after being moved from Fox & Friends years ago. Sick of the mistreatment, Carlson initiates plans to sue Ailes for sexual harassment and the retaliation that resulted from her rebuff of his advances. Where Carlson has at least some recourse, Kayla, whose bright-eyed ambition and beauty puts her right in Ailes’ crosshairs, has less than none after a devastating encounter in his office.
Bombshell tells an engaging and timely story with easily recognizable characters, but considering its gravity, the way it is told is odd. Director Jay Roach imbues the film with a satirical energy reminiscent of Adam McKay, with one-liners that attempt wit (“I wish I could be slut-shamed” is an actual line of dialogue), visual markers, and Big Short-esque sequences where Megyn Kelly gives dual tours of the News Corp empire and a lifetime of workplace harassment. It doesn’t gel with the more sober explorations of Ailes’ misconduct, which is actually one of Bombshell‘s strengths. Kayla’s encounter with Ailes in his office is a harrowing, upsetting scene, and a later one where she breaks down on the phone with her colleague Jess (Kate McKinnon) powerfully capture the heavy toll it took on her. The coupling of Megyn Kelly’s fiery takedown of the HR practices that ostensibly protect women and her expression of fear about coming forward with her own Ailes story are just as effective, adding dimensions to her unflappable persona. Bombshell does significant work to humanize Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, especially to those who might’ve only seen them as talking heads on a conservative-leaning cable news network.
What Bombshell doesn’t do well is explore how Fox News’ toxic environment was able to thrive for so long. The three women’s experiences may have been specific and relatively disconnected from each other, but they didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s impossible to divorce Fox News’ value system from its cultural practices, just like with Harvey Weinstein’s successes and Hollywood’s complicity in his sexual abuse. And yet, Bombshell never really goes there and takes the network to task for maintaining the status quo. There’s slut-shaming and victim-blaming aimed at Carlson and Kelly from the conservative establishment, but Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph don’t make a satisfying connection between its values and the patriarchal system of which the harassment was but a symptom of. They also don’t acknowledge the role that these women played in perpetuating those values. Instead, their complicity in Fox News’ sexist culture is blamed on professional ambition: Kayla disparages Carlson’s show to Bill Shine to make way for her to join The O’Reilly Factor, while Kelly’s hesitancy around the Ailes lawsuit comes from a genuine fear that it would permanently mark her career. We don’t get insight into why other important women at the network, from Greta Van Susteren to Jeanine Pirro, supported Ailes, just that there were willing to loudly go to bat for him. It feels like a compromise to keep from alienating conservative audiences who might take umbrage with a deeper reading. Unfortunately, it makes it also feel like a cop-out.
Any compromises made in its storytelling thankfully don’t extend to its cast’s exemplary performances, which make the most compelling case for the film. At the center is Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Megyn Kelly. With incredible makeup and startling voice work, the Oscar-winning actress disappears completely into the role. She fully embodies the anchor’s fierce strength while also uncovering layers of vulnerability as she grapples with multiple forms of harassment. John Lithgow continues his own record of vanishing into roles as Roger Ailes, delivering an intimidating, deeply uncomfortable performance Nicole Kidman’s performance as Gretchen Carlson is less transformative, but just as compelling as Carlson strategizes to claim justice. Margot Robbie, portraying one of the few original characters and depicting an especially aggressive act of harassment, gives a devastating performance. Even though her screen time is limited, Kate McKinnon makes a strong impression as Robbie’s love interest and confidant.
If Bombshell were more sure of the audience it was trying to reach, it might not feel so timid in relation to its richly complicated subject matter. The film leaves a lot on the table worth digging into, particularly around complicity and responsibility in this corner of the #MeToo era. The film does have its merits – excellent performances, solid narrative pacing and direction – but the missed opportunities are glaring.