In the Tale of Roger Ailes’ Downfall, the Big Story is How Little Has Changed
DIRECTED BY JAY ROACH/2019
We are drowning in news, and not just because of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle. We’re living in a time of such upheaval and rapid change that two years can feel like a decade. There’s no better proof of that than the jarring experience of watching Bombshell and realizing how distant the events onscreen seem, though they happened only a few years ago.
Bombshell tells the story of the women at Fox News who ultimately took down Roger Ailes, former Chairman and CEO. After decades having free reign to sexually harass the women who worked for him, Ailes was finally forced out when high profile Fox journalists Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly opened the door for other women to come forward and share their experiences. It was a win in the #MeToo movement, and this movie leans hard into the female empowerment/strength through solidarity angle. Ultimately, that’s the film’s weakness. I think director Jay Roach wants viewers to feel good at the end of the film, to feel that harassers are finally receiving their comeuppance, that we are in a new world in which brave women are taking down systems of abuse. But I found the movie depressing, and I suspect many people living in America in 2019 will feel the same, even as a feminist power anthem plays over the credits of Bombshell.
Bombshell was written by Charles Randolph who won an Academy Award for co-writing The Big Short. His work here helps to account for the films satirical tone and frenetic energy. Unfortunately, in the hands of director Roach, it feels like a lesser copy of The Big Short or Vice, rather than an homage to those Adam McKay-directed films. The decision to include dozens of Fox News figures in the cast also undercuts the film. When Richard Kind shows up as Rudy Giuliani or Tony Plana as Geraldo Rivera, it stars to feel like an SNL sketch rather than a movie.
The leads, however, all do fine work. Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson wears an unfortunate prosthetic chin, but gives an earnest performance. Margot Robbie plays a young, aspiring Fox employee, Kayla Prospisil. This fictional character is presumably a composite of women who gave accounts of being harassed by Ailes. Beautiful, blonde, eager for onscreen work at Fox, an Evangelical “influencer in the Jesus space”, Kayla draws on some of the broader stereotypes of Fox News’ female personalities. Perhaps Tomi Lahren came to mind in crafting this character? But Kayla is significantly changed by being harassed by Ailes, and the movie’s sympathies go with her. As always Robbie is compelling onscreen, especially when she’s confessing her devastation over giving in to Ailes to her co-worker and sometimes sexual partner, Jess (Kate McKinnon).
John Lithgow is nearly unrecognizable as Roger Ailes. Sickly, overweight, simultaneously tyrannical and self-pitying, Ailes rules over every inch of Fox News, down to the length of dress worn by the women on the channel. While longtime Fox employees talk about the good he’s done for many of them, it takes only one scene – of him asking Kayla to show him her legs by hitching her skirt up sky high – to communicate Ailes’ true character.
But Bombshell is owned by Charlize Theron, who captures Megyn Kelly to an astonishing degree. Kelly is smart, driven, convinced that she knows how to handle then-candidate Donald Trump. But her choice to take on his past treatment of women in a presidential debate was the beginning of Kelly’s undoing at Fox. She underestimated his hold on his supporters, and was ultimately forced to “make nice” with him in a face to face interview several months later. It didn’t undo the damage to Kelly’s career at Fox, but it bought her some time before she made the jump to NBC. Theron is rock solid in the role, commanding attention as Kelly spends much of the film debating whether to publicly share her own experience with Ailes’ harassment. Especially good is a scene in which she challenges Kayla to come forward, while still trying to maintain her own privacy. Kayla’s anger at the women at Fox who could have warned others is understandable, if ultimately misplaced.
Many viewers will experience their own understandable if misplaced, anger watching Bombshell. It’s hard not to yell at the screen, “But you worked at Fox News!” Fox, the leader in sexualizing women in journalism; Fox, which has mocked feminism and the #MeToo movement; Fox, which has whipped up fear against so many marginalized groups. I appreciate that Bombshell included at least one clip of Megyn Kelly in her prime at Fox, participating in spreading their poison (the famed episode in which she complained about non-white Santas). No woman who worked or works at Fox is free from responsibility for what the Network has done to journalism and politics in the U.S. And yet. Roger Ailes was responsible for his actions, not Megyn Kelly or Gretchen Carlson or the other women he sexually harassed or assaulted. Just as a woman can’t be responsible for her rape, a woman is not responsible for her workplace harassment, even if she works for a reprehensible corporation.
I’m glad that Carlson and Kelly led the way to Roger Ailes being removed from his post. My issue with Bombshell, ultimately, is that if watched in a vacuum it might make you think we’ve made great strides against sexism, and against sexual harassment and assault. Gretchen Carlson came forward with her allegations on July 6, 2016 and on July 21 Ailes was removed from his role at Fox. That quickly, one of the most powerful men in American media and politics was disgraced and dethroned. But on October 7 of that year the Access Hollywood tape dropped, revealing in Donald Trump’s own voice and words his attitude toward women. That was in the midst of multiple allegations from almost 20 women of sexual misconduct by the candidate, and yet, none of this mattered enough to keep Trump out of the White House. An America in which Donald Trump has been elected president is not one in which we can cheer that we are winning the war against accepting sexual harassment and assault.
And so I didn’t feel elated at the end of Bombshell. I felt worn out by the same battles being fought over and over again, by the continual hope that surely things will be different after (fill in the blank) scandal. And I am angry that Fox News, rather than suffering any lasting consequences, remains a media powerhouse, continues to do damage, and serves as virtual state media for the sitting president.
Victims banding together and speaking up, taking down Goliath, is a great story. But at some point the courage of victims isn’t enough. The rest of us have to speak up, too.