Kate McKinnon and Margot Robbie end up in bed together not long into Bombshell. It’s one of the movie’s few genuine surprises, one I suppose I’ve just spoiled, though any astonishment it generates has more to do with daring than with plot. Bombshell, about the women whose sexual-harassment allegations led to the 2016 ouster of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, does not exactly have daring to spare. It’s a misbegotten hybrid of the flat political dramas that director Jay Roach makes for HBO and the didacticism of writer Charles Randolph’s earlier effort, The Big Short. The tone starts off as knowingly satirical and ends on an unearned note of inspirational earnestness. A character talks to the camera in the beginning, but then that stops as though it’s a bit she forgot she was doing. While Charlize Theron does an eerie, prosthetics-aided impersonation of Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman just dons a wig to play Gretchen Carlson, and the script can’t get enough of a handle on either of the former Fox News anchors to give the actresses, who only share two scenes, much to work with.
And yet, you can occasionally see flashes of the better, sharper movie Bombshell could have been, and while there aren’t many of those moments, there are enough that it can’t be written off entirely. In these scenes, Bombshell seems to understand that what it’s telling is not so much a proto–Me Too story as it is one about conservative white feminism, and about the ideological Jenga of trying to push back at a particular form of oppression while trying to leave all the structures that support it undisturbed. It’s something you see in the post-coital chat that McKinnon and Robbie’s characters, both fictionalized producers, have about their relationships with Fox News culture. Robbie’s character, Kayla Pospisil, is a self-described “influencer in the Jesus space” who aspires to become on-air talent, while McKinnon’s character, Jess, is a closeted lesbian and liberal. It’s understood that they have no future together beyond their work friendship — Kayla might have sex with women, but she dates men, and the idea of tamping down one’s political affiliation is more alien to her than repressing aspects of one’s sexuality, which seems to be just par for the course. “My parents would be horrified if I went home with a Democrat!” she giggles.
She understands how to be a good conservative, but has to learn that that’s not the same thing as being a Fox News employee. Being a good soldier at Fox News means wearing short skirts at clear desks — there’s a sequence of younger hosts like Abby Huntsman (Ashley Greene) and Ainsley Earhardt (Alice Eve) squeezing into Spanx and spike heels while insisting to reporters on the phone that of course they’re allowed to wear pants. It means that challenging Donald Trump’s behavior toward women, the way Megyn does at the August 2015 debates at the start of the film, gets you hung out to dry by your boss because “our audience loves Trump a hell of a lot more than the Murdochs realize.” It means that Ailes doesn’t tell everyone what to say on air, because, as Kelly explains in a fourth-wall-breaking introductory monologue, “He doesn’t have to.” And it means that sometimes Ailes will ask for a sexual favor and will frame it as a gesture of loyalty — the way he does to Kayla in the movie’s most uncomfortably framed scene — and saying no means that suddenly opportunities dry up.
Is Bombshell hard enough on Fox News? Difficult to gauge, because it’s so much more focused on the internal culture than the product they put out in the world, which we only see snippets of (one of them Kelly’s infamous “Santa is white” remark). The film presents familiar figures as waxlike caricatures — Alanna Ubach’s dogged Jeanine Pirro is especially funny, while Bree Condon, playing Kimberly Guilfoyle, stalks the edges of the screen like a grimacing fembot. But those are easy points to score. When it comes to Trump, the movie is oddly unspecific about the role Fox News played in the election. Trump’s ascension to Republican nominee underlies the main action of the film, and the betrayal that its trio of main characters feel at how women at their workplace have been treated runs parallel to that workplace’s gradual alignment with the now-president. But the film never paints them as complicit, even making a point of showing Kelly to be shocked at the random hostile encounters she has in public with men who declare their allegiance to Trump. It’s more comfortable treating its characters as having been left behind by the turn their party has taken than having been compliant in its propping up of patriarchy, among other things, until this point.
Bombshell is, at its best, like an attempt to tell The Handmaid’s Tale by way of only the Aunts and Wives. At its worst, it presents the story as a triumph of women who, in the words of a closing voice-over, “got the Murdochs to put the rights of women above profits, however temporarily” — an incredibly sunny spin on a conclusion that’s a lot darker than the film itself seems to realize. Ailes, as we know, gets the boot. Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) arrives in the newsroom like the next boss in a video game — sons Lachlan and James (played by IRL siblings Ben and Josh Lawson) flanking him — as he takes a call from “Donald.” Nothing is actually going to change, internally or externally (and as if to underscore that, another Fox News host filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit yesterday). Bombshell nevertheless has its fictional lead Kayla walk out with her head high, dumping her ID badge as she goes. If it understood her at all, it’d cut to her on her new YouTube channel talking about how migrant children are actually at fault for ending up in cages. But again, this isn’t a movie with an excess of daring. By that point, any boldness it had displayed had long ago run out.