What happens when victims are “unlikeable”? The 2016 sexual assault allegations against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes unearthed the long-assumed but carefully-guarded toxic workspace of Fox’s right-wing media, with multiple women testifying to their sexual harassment under the chief executive.
Such harassment is obviously inexcusable and undeserved by anyone, but there’s an interesting premise in depicting women who perpetuated Fox’s misogynistic and conservative values having these attitudes turned back against them, of people trying to get ahead in an oppressive culture realising the whole structure is rigged to keep the men on top.
Such issues are icky and uncomfortable, and Bombshell instead opts to utterly side-step these quandaries in its glossy dramatization.
It shows the overlapping struggles of exasperated and recently-demoted host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), trying to remain a ‘loyal’ journalist despite bullying from then Presidential- nominee Trump (tellingly, for questioning his sexism), and fictionalised Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) as a peppy “Evangelical Millennial” recently promoted, and quickly solicited, by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who roams Fox’s building like a paranoid ogre.
These actors all perform admirably, the three leading women especially burying their indignation beneath the frustration against the obstacles for exposing such assaulters. Lithgow also effectively blusters as Ailes, depicting a hostile and powerful egomaniac who is clearly overcompensating for deep (if unrecognised) insecurity. Scenes focused on their exchanges, including the short interactions of the women, are Bombshell’s best moments.
Yet the script paints them too broad and flat for enough substance, the erasure of their real-life problematic conservative viewpoints reducing them to generalised ‘victims’, becoming surface-level characters, whose depths are never probed.
Bombshell‘s clear inspiration is The Big Short (sharing a co-writer with Charles Rudolph), but it lacks that film’s simmering anger or purpose, and the 4th-wall exposition breaks largely lack energy, mostly becoming a distraction. Quippy descriptions of Fox’s aggressively male environment undermine the serious issues these women are shown facing, without enough clever insights to make it feel necessary (that Fox News hires attractive women doesn’t need to be emphasised). The ending particularly tries to be simultaneously ‘empoweringly inspirational’ and soberingly realistic, and while this could be a long-sought nuance, instead Bombshell just feels confused.
If this ultimately fine film’s lacklustre elements appear too harshly condemned, it is because such serious subject matters deserve proper investigations. However, Bombshell’s numerous strengths also aren’t interesting to discuss. Jay Roach directs everything in a pleasingly solid, if slightly flat, style that is intentionally reminiscent of Fox’s TV News, with the impressive costuming & make-up seamlessly transforming the performers into their real-life counterparts.
A compelling supporting cast (including a woefully brief turn from Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani) and energetic pace help make Bombshell an easy and informative watch. The film’s topics remain relevant and well-composed, but restricted by its untapped potential. Removing Bombshell’s thorny edges has made it digestible but forgettable, neutralising the explosive impact it could have had.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr