The story of Bombshell was always going to be difficult to master tonally. It’s a movie about the female employees of Fox News who accused founder Roger Ailes of sexual assault, and whose accusations eventually caused his professional downfall. If that sounds like prickly territory to navigate, that’s because there are lots of conflicting sentiments in this story. It was undeniably important that Ailes was removed from his position of power after decades of abuse. Yet the ultra-conservative network he founded, the divisive political rhetoric he helped popularize, and the professional atmosphere he created still exist. The biggest names involved in the lawsuit against him — Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson — remain polarizing figures beyond their careers at Fox.
There’s a fine line to walk between respecting the experiences of the women involved and providing necessary criticism of their roles in an institution they were willingly part of. Jay Roach’s movie isn’t up to that task. It paints the women’s story as a standard empowerment narrative and avoids any meaningful examination of the underlying attitudes that caused Fox News to be such a toxic workplace. Bombshell wants to be sharp-edged commentary, but also doesn’t want to turn off audiences on either side of the political divide. The movie is so concerned with having it both ways that it ends up unsure of how to proceed.
At the center of Bombshell are Kelly (Charlize Theron), Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional news producer who also functions as an audience surrogate. The story starts during the 2016 presidential race, when Kelly famously questioned then-candidate Donald Trump about his comments regarding women, and suffered attacks from Trump and his supporters as a result. At the same time, Carlson is unhappy with her declining career at the network, which she attributes to her unwillingness to cater to Ailes. Pospisil is a rookie producer on Carlson’s show with ambitions of becoming on-camera talent. In her journey to the top, she discovers the expectations of female employees at Fox, and must decide what to do when she’s put in a horrible position.
Theron’s Kelly powers most of the story. There are times, especially at the beginning of the film, when it feels like Theron is trying a little too hard to mimic Kelly’s vocal mannerisms, more impression than embodiment, but there’s also a genuine curiosity about the character that’s interesting to watch her explore. Kelly’s arc, however, is frustrating to get a handle on. She repeatedly refuses suggestions of feminist leanings, and takes a long time to decide where she stands on the allegations against Ailes. But even though she eventually comes around, it doesn’t appear that she’s learned anything from the experience, or come to question anything about the work she does.
Kidman’s Carlson hits closer to the parody end of the spectrum. Bombshell frequently shows her giving weak and hollow attempts to challenge her viewers’ beliefs, and to defend herself to others. She’ll get rightfully angry about how she’s treated by her colleagues, then get in her own way by making a goofy statement that makes her difficult to take seriously. However, more so than Kelly, as the person who brought forth the actual lawsuit against Ailes, Carlson is the one who risks the most, and whose story has the most drama built in. Unfortunately, she gets shoved to the side for most of the movie, only finally getting a proper spotlight in the third act.
Surrounding Theron, Kidman and Robbie are an ensemble of Fox news employees, anchors and allies that seem like they belong in an SNL sketch. Richard Kind blunders around as Rudy Giuliani and Allison Janney overdoes it as Ailes’ lawyer Susan Estrich. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Geraldo Rivera show up, played by character actors in pounds of makeup or disguised under ridiculous wigs. In these moments, it feels as if Roach is trying to compensate for going relatively easy on Fox News by trying to get in a few quick jabs at some of its biggest names, but it feels like an afterthought, and out-of-place with the rest of the film.
While it’s true that Bombshell’s story is a tricky one to get right, it’s possible that it could have been much more Roach makes it. It’s still an engaging movie, and stylishly made, but it leaves behind an unpleasant aftertaste. There’s a strong irony between the justice Kelly, Carlson, and others sought and their politics, both in real life and onscreen, that the movie never addresses in a satisfying way, which feels both disappointing and confusing.