Fox News harassment movie Bombshell takes the easy way out

Despite great performances by its three leads, this is a toothless take on U.S. politics and systemic abuse.

Without Fox News, could Donald Trump have become President? An even better question: without Fox News, would Donald Trump even want to be President? Bombshell, the latest pop-comedy “satire” about very big important issues, tackles the allegations of sexual harassment against former Fox News CEO/chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) that would eventually lead to his resignation. Directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers) and written by Charles Randolph (The Big Short), the film is the latest toothless take on the current American political landscape.

Bombshell focuses on the experiences of three women working at Fox News: Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who initiates the lawsuit by first suing Roger Ailes alleging harassment and retaliation for not engaging in a sexual relationship; Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), the network’s most popular host who falls from grace as she goes after President Trump’s well-documented “woman problem;” and the fictionalized Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an overeager millennial who has always dreamed of working for Fox and identifies as an “influencer in the Jesus space.” They’re three blonde bombshells who will drop a news bombshell that will change (but not really) the broadcast news industry as we know it. 

From the opening sequence, there are numerous instances of breaking the fourth wall. The audience is regularly addressed by a parade of unreliable narrators who we will be expected to accept as feminist heroes. They add asides, filling us in on information, or dead-pan expressions of disbelief (a truly awful “joke” format that NBC’s The Office popularized to the detriment of good filmmaking). Some moments are smarter than others, but overall it’s hard to admire writing that does the bare minimum in raising glaring hypocrisies with the Fox News network. It’s low-hanging fruit and lacks the ambition and guts to take a stand about anything except that workplace harassment is terrible, and standing up to it is hard. 

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The film’s structure similarly feels lacklustre. There is little momentum, and the structure may be true to reality but lacks a sense of rhythm and urgency. If you have the vaguest concept of a timeline of events of the past five years, you know where things are headed, and there are few moments of reckoning or revelation to add tension to the proceedings.

The cast is, of course, great. Theron’s transformation as Megyn Kelly is eerie to the point of distraction. Is it just make-up or some weird digital trick? (The movie also features an uncanny valley deep-fake of Bill O’Reilly). She captures perfectly the sense of entitlement that comes with ambition without principle, even though the script tries to pull out more vulnerability than necessary. Kidman, in the film’s most thankless role, also transforms physically but invokes a more subtle rage than Theron. While Gretchen is the one who initiates the lawsuit, something she approaches with wry intelligence and patience, she remains the most inscrutable character within the film and, perhaps, for that reason, the most interesting. 

Margot Robbie gives the best performance, though. As the bright-eyed hyper-ambitious Fox-News loving closeted-lesbian, she embodies an idealized version of the Fox News Woman: blonde, gorgeous, conservative. Her scenes of harassment at the hands of Ailes are the most graphic, even though the film (wisely) keeps the worst of it offscreen. Surprisingly, the film does deal with harassment intelligently, evoking its humiliation very deeply while also allowing the performers a certain amount of dignity. Watching Robbie’s character fall from confidence is great and involving drama, but it’s not necessarily great filmmaking.

There is a scene where Robbie breaks down on the phone, explaining what happened and the enduring alienation of Ailes’s abuse. It is heart-wrenching to watch. In that sense, it is good. But in the scope of a film that is so cautious in its treatment of systematic violence and corporate greed, it almost feels perverse. While the filmmaking avoids exploitative scenes of sexual harassment, it also redirects our disgust towards cathartic emotive responses, rather than the systematic issues that are the core of the problem.

Focusing so much cinematic energy on the sacrifice of these three women, who all pointedly do not self-identify as feminists, absolves them of any criticism and robs them of humanity. While they are all portrayed as flawed, the film doesn’t integrate that complexity into its treatment. Sure, there’s a scene where a dewy-eyed Kaila confronts Megyn Kelly about her complicity. Still, once again, it reduces systematic abuse to an issue of personal responsibility rather than a greater culture of abuse and conspiracy. Everything exists on the surface, with very little room for introspection, complexity or nuance. It’s a movie that is all too easy to walk away from, unchanged and, at worst, quietly outraged that the harassment payout is smaller than the severance pay for abusers. It makes you mad about money, but not in a way that reflects on how those billions are used to run a media empire that has a direct impact on democracy. 

As the film takes place in the shadow of Trump’s rise to power, it feels like an all-too good and all-too clean version of events. It has a self-satisfied aura of showcasing the worst of Fox News, as an admittedly easy target. The film isolates social ills to one corporate entity whose “evils” are reduced to bad players (Ailes, Murdoch and O’Reilly) rather than a deeper existential issue plaguing the decimation of information and news in our culture.

Bombshell takes the easy way out nearly every step of the way. It points out obvious absurdities and hypocrisies evident to anyone who has watched more than half-a-minute of cable news television. While it illuminates how abuse can quickly become an entire toxic workplace culture, it does little to reference or shed light on the variety of social, political and labour issues that allow these environments to persist and thrive. ■

Bombshell opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 20. Watch the trailer below.

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