Bombshell tells the story of Roger Ailes’ ouster at Fox News amid a sexual harassment scandal. In hindsight, it’s a proto-#MeToo story about a predator felled when enough people listened to enough women recount horror stories of harassment and abuse, and it happened at one of the most insular media companies in America. Roger Ailes WAS Fox News, so for him to be removed was a big f-cking deal. Bombshell imparts the sense of shock and upheaval that came with Ailes being dismissed from the news channel he built, but it does not successfully make a case for the women charged with bringing him down.
Bombshell focuses on three women: Kayla (Margot Robbie), who is composite character, and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), both of whom are real. Bombshell is a mix of real and invented characters, which is fine, but there is such a gap of understanding between how Kayla functions on screen and how “Megyn” and “Gretchen” function that it begs the question of why this movie isn’t just about Kayla. A huge issue for Bombshell is the question of audience sympathy and where it is placed, and it is easier, by orders of magnitude, to sympathize with Kayla than it is Megyn and Gretchen.Of course, as human beings we don’t necessarily need to sympathize with a person in order to understand when they have been harmed. But absorbing a story as an audience member requires empathy, that of understanding a character’s motivations and goals in a way that does not impede our understanding of the narrative. Kayla is easy to understand. Hailing from a hardcore conservative family that worships at the altar of Fox News, she is not particularly likeable. For one thing, she’s a hypocrite, falling into bed with a co-worker, Jess (played by Kate McKinnon), but insisting she isn’t gay or bi because she would never bring a woman—or a Democrat—home to meet her family. But we understand she is excited by her new job, that she believes passionately in Fox News, and that she has dedicated her life to this cause and this message. So when her experience becomes harrowing, we feel badly, even if we don’t like her, because this means the ruin of her dreams. We understand the stakes and what she is losing.
We don’t really have the same understanding of Gretchen or, especially, Megyn. Bombshell, directed by Jay Roach and written by Charles Randolph (who also wrote The Big Short and Bombshell has a similar tone), never quite reconciles the institution these women uphold and the man they bring down. Bombshell wants to be about women standing up to an abusive monster, but it does NOT want to be about those same women taking on the systemic and structural forces that enable that monster. Everything is Rogers Ailes’ fault, there is no accounting for how Fox News structurally supports a world that enables predators like Ailes. It’s like if Serena Joy was the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Bombshell further muddies the waters by bringing in Megyn’s feud with then-candidate Trump, who very publicly attacked Megyn following a debate in which she asked about his terrible recorded history with women. But Bombshell makes no effort to connect the dots between Trump’s misogyny, the men whipped into a frenzy by it, Roger Ailes, and Megyn’s own harassment by Ailes. Instead, it focuses on a non-existent personal investigation Megyn runs within Fox News to determine if anyone is coming forward to support Gretchen’s sexual harassment claims. Only when she realizes Ailes is still preying on women behind closed doors, ten years after her own harassment, does Megyn come forward.
I’m not advocating for perfect victims. There is no such thing. But a story works differently than real life. In a story, we need to understand motivations and grasp consequences. Kayla’s motivation is clear, her stakes in the story are clear, and the consequences for her speaking out are clear. Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are such complicated figures in real life that Bombshell doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, and thus nothing about their characters within the story is clear. Ultimately, they just distract from the far more effective story of Kayla. No matter how eerily similar the facial prosthetics and convincing Charlize Theron’s voice is as Megyn, Bombshell is best when it’s about Kayla.
Attached - Margot Robbie at Kimmel yesterday, Nicole Kidman on the set of new project, The Prom, and Charlize Theron and John Lithgow at a Bombshell screening in New York earlier this week.