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Bombed out 

A slickly-produced account of the women whose sexual harassment accusations eventually brought down Fox News chief Roger Ailes, "Bombshell" offers a too-often surface level look at a (sadly) perpetually-timely subject. Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman star as Fox anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, the two most high-profile figures at the center of the scandal that shook up the network (albeit briefly) in the second half of 2016.

click to enlarge Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie in "Bombshell." - PHOTO COURTESY LIONSGATE
  • PHOTO COURTESY LIONSGATE
  • Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie in "Bombshell."

Kelly is the closest to a main character we get, and the film follows her as she heads into her role as moderator of the August 2015 Republican debate. It's there that Kelly challenged then-candidate Donald Trump on his sexism, inadvertently kicking off a feud with Trump that had Kelly unexpectedly incurring the wrath of the network's viewers.

While Kelly is the film's central figure, it's "Fox & Friends" star Carlson who's the first to level allegations against Ailes (played by John Lithgow, assisted by some impressively jowl-y prosthetics). After Carlson ends up fired from the network, she sues Ailes for sexual harassment, eventually opening the floodgates for more women to come forward.

The film's third major character is Kayla (Margot Robbie), a newly-hired associate producer, and self-described "influencer in the Jesus space," with aspirations of becoming on-air talent. Kayla is a composite character, and while Carlson's harassment took place years prior, Kayla's storyline is representative of the women Ailes is currently preying upon.

It's heartbreaking to see the humiliation and disillusionment Kayla faces as she experiences harassment at the hands of Ailes in exchange for promises of professional advancement. Robbie gives the film's strongest performance — possibly because it's not beholden to existing persons — but the writing of her character never feels consistent.

Early on, she falls into bed with another producer (Kate McKinnon), a closeted lesbian and secret Hillary supporter. Kayla's bisexuality is ham-fistedly handled; we get no insight, for example, into how that aspect of herself interacts with the place she's chosen to be employed.

The screenplay by Charles Randolph ("The Big Short") does a good job dramatizing the pervading culture of sexism at Fox: the constant stream of dehumanizing compliments and microaggressions the women who work there face on a daily basis. But the film never makes any connection between the network's internal culture and its role in propping up the societal structures that make it possible. Structures that actively dehumanize women and people of color in particular.

McKinnon's character delivers the clearest distillation of the network's ethos during an introductory walk-and-talk through the newsroom. The aim, she explains, is always to find stories that will scare your grandma and rile up your grandpa; ones that will "frighten and titillate" viewers to just the right degree.

"Bombshell" works hard to completely absolve its characters of their own complicity in the creation of the toxic product churned out by Fox. Which isn't to say their politics should have a bearing on any sympathy we feel for the sexual harassment they experienced, but it does flatten the complexity of who we know these women to be.

Focusing only on the internal politics at Fox feels like a way to avoid dealing with larger issues that surround its story. It allows the filmmakers to conveniently glide past the product the network puts out into the world, and the very real damage it does. At its heart, the film is about a very specific brand of white, conservative feminism, and the refusal to acknowledge that feels like a glaring omission.

Nor does the film tell us anything we don't already know about the toxic environment at Fox News — a network that's far beyond parody or satire at this point. Early on, the filmmakers seem to be trying for a lightly satirical tone, but it's eventually abandoned in favor of somber earnestness. There are stylistic touches that feel overly self-conscious, like the sporadic use of straight-to-camera narration. And the storytelling can be amusingly blatant, as when Kelly debates speaking out while sitting in traffic, and we get a zoom in on a blinking "stay in lane" road sign.

There's an interesting story here, and it's complicated by the women's decision to look the other way when it benefits them. Predators like Ailes can't hold onto power without the help of women as well, and it's frustrating that Randolph's script sidesteps any opportunity to hold its characters accountable for their role in upholding the status quo.

In bending over backward to position its protagonists as feminist heroes, the film ends up feeling strangely timid and superficial. There's a certain value in Roach's attempt to find the humanity in women whose public personas large swaths of the country have come to despise. But it needed a sharper script and a bit more curiosity into what makes these women tick to really do their story justice.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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