Written by Charles Randolph
Directed by Jay Roach
If you’re watching Bombshell and, like me, think, “This feels an awful lot like The Big Short,” that’s because it is. The co-writer of that film, Charles Randolph penned this film and you can he definitely has a tone & style. Adam McKay is not onboard for this one, with Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) directing instead. Making a movie about this particular event is a great idea, but I think in the execution, the film ends up being aimed at those who are already on the same page about Fox News and does little to convince faithful viewers of that network to abandon it.
Bombshell is the film adaptation of the real-life sexual harassment scandal that developed at Fox News in 2016. This led to the firing of the network’s longtime head Roger Ailes but hasn’t really seemed to shift the trajectory of the channel. The movie focuses on three women at Fox, hosts Megyn Kelly & Gretchen Carlson as well as Kaya Pospisil, a newbie at the network angling for a more significant career. Throughout the film, we follow Megyn as she gets into a back and forth with Donald Trump, who levels nasty, sexists comments at her during the 2016 election campaign. Gretchen Carlson is working to make her show on the network something different, aimed more at the female demographic in the audience. Kaya exists as both a cipher to have someone to hear exposition explaining the inner workings of Fox News and as a new victim of Roger Ailes’ sexual predilections.
Bombshell does not succeed in being a hard-hitting film despite the great performances of its cast. The most significant flaw with Bombshell is the script. A movie about Fox News could be fantastic, a chance to delve deep and cover things that go beyond the headlines. Nothing in Bombshell is something you couldn’t have already read in a People magazine article about the harassment scandal. The film seems to only feel comfortable exploring the very surface level of the incident. This is frustrating because, in The Big Short, there was a sense that information was being delivered that constituted a moderate deep dive. What we learned in that movie was much more than you were getting in the nightly news.
In Bombshell, a character exposits about Bill O’Reilly’s dirty talking phone call as if this is a well-kept secret by the Fox News organization. I suspect this was put in the film not as a point of information to help elucidate the audience, but in the same way, the droids are plopped into the middle of Star Wars: Rogue One. It’s an “I know that” moment, nothing is added to the narrative, but the audience experiences momentary recognition. What does that add to the story, the characters, or themes? Nothing. Bombshell might work decades from now when these details have been forgotten, but for a contemporary audience, why not go deeper?
This leads to another big problem in the picture, the blending of fact and fiction. The movie starts with Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly narrating the situation. This meta-fictional narration is inconsistent and feels like a conceit the writer gave up on or added during revisions but didn’t make sure it had a throughline. I got the sense that the filmmakers were walking on eggshells when it came to Kelly and Gretchen Carlson’s characters. They walk this line where they want them to be sympathetic but only to a certain extent. I have some personal issues with anyone trying to make Megyn “Blackface was cool when I was young” Kelly, a figure we should feel bad for. Does she deserve what Ailes did to her earlier in her career? Of course not, but she never did much to stand up for herself or other women until it provided a lucrative next step in her career.
The best part of the movie is Margot Robbie as the fictional Kaya. She’s a character we don’t see much in mainstream cinema, labeling herself “an evangelical millennial.” Kaya was confounding to me in all the best ways. She appears to be sheltered to a lot of the secular world, but then we see her post-sexual encounter with a fellow Fox News employee. However, she casually states that she’s not gay while her co-worker is quietly confused. I think Kaya becomes a great example of the complexity of modern conservativism, an archaic ideology trying to remain relevant but becoming an incoherent mess. The one thing that is consistent about Kaya is her drive to ascend and her refusal, like all the other women in the movie, to accept an identity as a feminist.