Not everyone was willing to buy what Megyn Kelly was selling when she reinvented herself as a crusader for women in August 2015. Kelly, who had just referred to a New York affirmative consent law as “eliminat[ing] the rights of men” one month earlier, suddenly cared about the objectification of women when it directly impacted her life. It was a bit like a politician who changes their mind about gay marriage after one of their kids comes out of the closet. And Kelly continued to talk out of both sides of her mouth in her 2016 memoir, Settle For More, in which she wrote: “My problem with the word feminist is that it’s exclusionary and alienating.” In that same book, she detailed her experiences with serial harasser and by-then-former Fox News head Roger Ailes, preaching about the importance of women supporting women while telling readers that “anyone being harassed needs to remember that ‘no’ is an available answer.”
There’s potential for a complex character study in the mass of contradictions that is Megyn Kelly and her fellow Fox News defectors, untying the messy tangle of factors that might lead an otherwise complicit collaborator to resist. But that potential is wasted in the Fox News drama Bombshell, which chooses to follow the much simpler (and more flattering) route of taking Kelly, played here by Charlize Theron, and her former colleague Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, at face value. As such, the film is a snappy, glib tour of recent history in the Adam McKay mold, hydroplaning through the stormy real-life events that led to Ailes’ departure from Fox News with windshield wipers on high and blinders strapped to each side of its head.
This film treats gender, as filtered through the single issue of workplace sexual harassment, as a standalone factor that affects all women equally. The fact that the women painted as agitators and whistleblowers in the film made their names on race-baiting and victim-blaming is acknowledged almost begrudgingly, via a jokey recurring bit about Kelly’s infamous “Santa is white” comment on Fox News. Carlson, meanwhile, isn’t asked to submit to even that mild level of criticism; up until her ouster from the network midway through, the news stories she’s shown reporting on in the film are all at least moderately empowering, and therefore unquestioned.
This kid-gloves approach to Bombshell’s real-life characters does a disservice to its core trio, who give performances that are deeply immersive physically but limited by the script. Theron in particular completely disappears into the character of Megyn Kelly, nailing all of her mannerisms and her famously husky voice. Kidman is still noticeably Kidman, and is pushed to the margin of the story by its climax besides. But her ability to bring a steel backbone to brittle, chilly characters remains unmatched—even if here that strength is applied to a scene where a woman is rude to Gretchen Carlson at a supermarket. At Bombshell’s Fox News, female employees are neatly divided into harassment victims like Carlson and Kelly and defenders of the sexist status quo like Ailes’ wife Beth (Connie Britton) and TV personality Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach). What little gray area there is between is personified by a fictional character, The O’Reilly Factor producer Jess (Kate McKinnon), a lesbian and a Democrat who is deeply closeted about both.
In its reluctance to grapple with the complexities of the people who have devoted their lives to furthering the Fox News agenda, the film ends up piling most of its emotional heavy lifting on the naive shoulders of Kayla Pospisil, the naïve evangelical go-getter played by Margot Robbie. Kayla is another new character invented for the film, and also the one who endures its most humiliating and explicit abuses at the hands of the villainous Ailes, played here in an appropriately repulsive turn from John Lithgow. The scene where Kayla tearfully unburdens herself to Jess after Ailes assaults her packs an emotional punch that’s almost too heavy for this otherwise superficial film, as does a viscerally upsetting, nauseatingly tense scene where Ailes forces Kayla to pull up her dress in front of him in order to “audition” for an on-camera gig.
Beyond the straightforward impact of Robbie’s storyline, one difficult-to-articulate idea that Bombshell does dramatize very well is the invisible web of excuses and insinuations that keep victims of harassment from coming forward. This is spun into unsettling edutainment in scenes like the one where a female journalist’s internal monologue is heard in voiceover as she’s offered an insulting sexual quid pro quo by a male superior on a business trip. More subtle, but equally effective, is the visual shift from form-fitting sheath dresses to blouses and slacks on the film’s female cast once Ailes has been dethroned. These scenes are played with the same pithy charm with which Robbie lays out the different floors of the Fox News building in the film’s opening sequence, comedic world-building that also lends Bombshell its best joke: a character’s insistence that “sushi is not a liberal food.”
With its confident approach to surface-level material, Bombshell puts Roach into a group of filmmakers that also includes Vice’s Adam McKay and Joker’s Todd Phillips: directors who have interpreted their box-office success doing broad comedies as a mandate to appoint themselves serious artists commenting on the issues that really matter. (Roach made a name for himself as the director of 1997's Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, and comes to Bombshell on the heels of the mediocre Trumbo.) That combination of activist intent and oblivious entitlement is actually a pretty spot-on parallel to the lily-white brand of “girl boss” feminism peddled by Kelly, Carlson, and their ilk, bringing the pairing of director and material—well-meaning but self-serving—into sharp relief.
Is it bad to educate right-of-center white people about sexual harassment? Not at all. Kelly, Carlson, and all the other women who have accused Ailes of sexual harassment over the years—not to mention the accusers of Fox News golden boy Bill O’Reilly, whose downfall is teased, but not dramatized, in Bombshell—did not earn how they were treated. They deserve to have their stories heard and believed, particularly by their fellow conservatives. But without pursuing a deeper understanding of the the toxic political environment to which they contributed, it’s unclear who else the film is for. If you’ve already accepted that treating your coworkers as sexual objects is bad, you’re unlikely to be shocked by Bombshell’s accusations, or enlightened by its insights.