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The Tangled Politics of Bombshell

When the women of Fox News rise up against Roger Ailes, who are they fighting for?

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Within its first 15 minutes, Bombshell, Jay Roach’s new film about the downfall of Roger Ailes, asks us to believe something incredible: that Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron) cares about the truth. When the former Fox News anchor challenges Donald Trump over his history of sexism during a Republican debate in 2015, she does it because she believes his comments matter. No one can dissuade her. Not even a bout of stomach flu can keep her from going on air. She walks out onto the debate stage the perfect Fox personality: primped and perfect, ready for Trump to take her at least half as seriously as she takes herself.

He does not. In case years of Trump scandals and sins have forced the Kelly incident from memory, here is a reminder: The future president dismissed her questions and then erupted. Trump raged for days, on Twitter and on TV. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes,” he complained to CNN’s Don Lemon. “Blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump would later insist that he had referred to Kelly’s nose, but his real meaning was clear enough to everyone else. He’s the sort of sexist to whom all women are period-crazed loons.

And so Kelly found herself in a new and uncomfortable position. She had made powerful enemies in Trump and his fevered fan base; his supporters sent her death threats. To them, and even to some liberals, her question to Trump proved she’d taken on a new identity: that of a feminist. Vanity Fair called her “an improbable feminist icon,” and at The Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz praised her for proving “that she doesn’t take well to bullies.” But by the time of the incident, as Bombshell shows, Kelly herself had comfortably filled the role of right-wing propagandist for years. Her infamous Santa segment—on which she insisted that Santa is white and could not be black—plays briefly in one scene, as Fox men speculate about her loyalties. She was one of the bullies, and it was a lucrative job.

When a sexual harassment scandal hits the network, this conflict comes to a head. Kelly faces a difficult choice for a woman whose primary loyalty appears to be to herself: She has to pick a side. This is the tension running through Bombshell, a slick production that never quite seems to know what to do with its confounding subjects. Will the Kelly who decided to challenge Trump resurface and help take down Roger Ailes, or will her ideology and her instinct for self-preservation claim the day? The dilemma is much stranger than the filmmakers seem to realize. How does someone who spent years wielding her platform against vulnerable people respond to any call for solidarity? What elevates a person’s fight against gender oppression above rudimentary self-interest? To tell this story, the film has to reckon with the political incoherence intrinsic to the professional ambitions of right-wing women, who believe they should be treated equally, while deriding the hopes and demands that others make for equality.

Bombshell does not relay this conundrum very well. The film’s moral complications are almost completely limited to Kelly’s story line. As foils, it brings in Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who sues Ailes over sexual harassment, and Kayla (Margot Robbie), a composite character who exists mostly to suffer. Kelly has climbed the top of Fox Mountain, but Carlson is on her way out, and Kayla is a newcomer, all fresh-faced ambition and zealotry. “I’m a big influencer in the Jesus space,” she boasts, in hopes of a promotion. (She gets it.) Of the three, Kidman plays Carlson as a straightforward hero. Her main challenge is to communicate the supposed tension between Carlson’s brains and conviction, and her wispy beauty-queen affect. To Robbie falls the burden of depicting the psychological fallout of Ailes’s predation, and so Kayla remains sympathetic. Her political views are never really explored, and she has no career misdeeds to sully her reputation. Theron has probably the most difficult job of all, and she seems to relish the challenge: She disappears so completely into Kelly’s demeanor that the result is physically unsettling. Theron doesn’t play Kelly as though she’s a hero, but as though there’s something admirable about her steely will.

The three stars appear together only in one scene. Otherwise, they’re mostly separate; though their actions affect one another, they each navigate a different circle of hell. Ailes (John Lithgow) is the dark lord at the center of it all, watching everything, offering counsel or inflicting pain on a whim. Carlson has lost his favor. Kayla wants to gain it. In an excruciating scene punctuated mostly by Ailes’s heavy breathing, she realizes the cost is higher than she wants to pay. Fox might have been good to Kelly, as long as she held her nose, but for most other women, it is a nightmare.

Carlson’s lawsuit offers everyone a chance at relief. But its success or failure depends on an unlikely display of workplace solidarity from Ailes’s other victims. Other women must substantiate Carlson’s major claims, among them that Ailes demanded sexual favors and that women, to him, were ornaments to ogle or discard. Ailes loves legs, so the women in Bombshell squeeze themselves into short skirts and tight dresses; there is nary a trouser leg in sight. They pace the halls like beautiful insects, all hard shells and bright colors that say watch out, here is poison. It’s not the likeliest place to develop a sisterhood, as Kayla discovers when she tries to tell her only work friend what Ailes did to her upstairs. Power only flows in one direction at Fox.

To the obedient go the spoils. Fox is a place where women achieve privilege that resembles power as long as they follow all the rules. Carlson is one of them, until matters stop going her way. She has her own show, but in an unenviable time slot. We’re made to understand that Ailes demoted her after she complained of sexualized treatment on Fox & Friends; later, after he greets her patronizingly as Miss America, she openly fights with him in the studio. In its bid to tell a feminist fable, Bombshell presents Carlson to us in her fully enlightened form, as she readies herself to take down one of the most influential conservative men in the country. A recreated montage of her time on Fox & Friends shows her fending off sexual comments from her co-hosts. It does not show Carlson stoking the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States; that with a middle name like “Hussein,” he may even be a secret Muslim. The real Carlson doesn’t pose much contrast to Megyn Kelly, but the film needs to pretend otherwise. We get the self-actualized Carlson, who immolates her career by going on camera without makeup.

Only Gretchen Carlson knows if she experienced a real ideological shift, something deeper than individual outrage at her own mistreatment. Bombshell strongly implies that she has. And whatever her motivations, her lawsuit did force a political reckoning at Fox. Workplace sexual harassment is a labor issue at its heart, and it’s often the impetus for unionization. Going against a boss, especially one as powerful as Ailes, requires organizing, even if the goal isn’t necessarily to form a union. Power must be redirected. It can no longer flow to the top, where it benefits only the man on top; the people he’s harmed have to reclaim it. Nothing could be more antithetical to Ailes’s vision for Fox, or to the ethos of the conservative movement at large. The political work that Ailes created Fox to complete demands the submission of women. Taking him down meant breaking the rules.

This is rich territory, but Bombshell treads lightly, and as a result the film feels thin. The closest it gets to a meaningful exploration of the limitations the conservative movement imposes on women occurs briefly, near the end of the film. A tearful Kayla asks Kelly why she didn’t report Ailes sooner and save everyone else a lot of pain. “It’s no one’s job to protect you,” Kelly sneers, and hisses the word “snowflake” from behind her teeth. Her meaning is clear: A woman should pull herself up by her stilettos. Lean in, but not too much, and certainly not on behalf of anyone else.