Bombshell never lives up the explosive promise of its title.
While satire has caught up with the age of Donald Trump, what with Alec Baldwin’s razor sharp Saturday Night Live impersonations which have infuriated the humourless Bigly-in-chief, cinema has to date struggled with how to capture not just this most divisive of Presidents but also the culture he has fostered in American politics and mass media. Jay Roach’s Bombshell is one of the first significant efforts to explore what this means for a country Hollywood has struggled in since 2016, defined as it is by ostensibly liberal values – even if economically they are far more conservative than they would ever let on.
The doorway opened for screenwriter Charles Randolph, best known for penning Adam McKay’s The Big Short, to detail this fairly recent chapter of American political life following the death in mid-2017 of Roger Ailes, the long-standing CEO of Fox News, as controlled by the global conglomerate under Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Ailes no longer being able to litigate allows Bombshell to tell the story, primarily, of Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who with previously dismissed host Gretchen Carlson stood up to years of pervasive, institutionalised sexual harassment by Ailes within the Fox News system, triggering a lawsuit that saw Ailes reputation in tatters and cost him his position. Within just under a year, that failure apparently killed him.
Bombshell, therefore, could easily have exploded as such and entirely destroyed Roger Ailes and the broader, Trumpian culture of old, white male abuse in the public eye. So why does it end up so remarkably toothless?
We exist right now in a divided culture space between those who protecting conservative values and those embracing liberal tolerance. Trump’s America encapsulates the division perhaps more overtly than any other nation, as is the show-business American way, despite how similar fault lines exist now in many other democracies across the globe. In America, it’s just in your living room on your television every day.
Roger Ailes was a potent example of the concrete power of aged, privileged Boomers who saw they had a right to abuse and destroy people’s lives. It’s easier to be honest about this now that he’s dead than it is, openly, for many involved to say the same about people like Trump or Murdoch, who to many represent precisely the same things and, in many ways, might actually be worse (they certainly have far more power than Ailes ever did).
Bombshell simultaneously props Ailes up as the arch villain of the piece (with John Lithgow in the role, now seemingly forging a career wearing heavy fat make up portraying old white men of questionable character) while also, in some ways, protecting him from the true savagery and anger you as an audience member should feel at how he treats women like Kelly or Carlson (played by an underused Nicole Kidman), or incumbent, Midwestern ingenue Kayla Popisil (played with engaging naivety by Margot Robbie), who we see paraded before him like a piece of meat, encouraged to reveal intimate parts of her body to get ahead in her Fox career.
Scenes such as this are deeply uncomfortable to watch but for some reason, you never entirely feel the power or rage in Roach’s direction, which works harder to capture the quasi-documentarian style of McKay’s The Big Short or Vice, as well as an element of the former’s penchant for breaking the 4th wall, as we see Charlize Theron (doing an uncanny Kelly impersonation which is both impressive and distracting) describe to us, the viewer, the inner workings of Fox News, a veritable download of key information we need to understand the context behind the drama, but then Roach doesn’t back it up with any sense of verve. Kate McKinnon’s Fox lifer Jess explains the organisation’s rationale to Kayla at one point: “The world is a bad place, people are lazy morons, minorities are criminals, sex is sick but interesting. Ask yourself, what would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather? And that’s a Fox story” which is a great line of dialogue never followed through on. You never get a sense of how damaging Fox actually is as an institution.
This is because Randolph’s script seems afraid to go for the jugular. The Big Short largely worked because it adopted a quirky, knowingly acerbic and satirical approach to a deeply complex, alienating issue in which the villain was *the system*. That same system that caused the 2008 economic crash and ended up, perversely, leading to the populist success of Trump or the purveyors of Brexit, even though millions have been convinced of the opposite.
The Big Short understood where to direct the anger but Bombshell is too meek to really call everything happening here for what it is: a result of a deeply troubled, psychologically resentful and entitled America who do still want women objectified, and who are happy for Fox to use the gloss of beautiful women with the kind of legs or backsides Ailes sought out in order to sell their agenda. “People don’t stop watching when there’s a conflict. They stop watching when there isn’t one.” Ailes remarks at one point, summing up Fox’s pervasive corruption of news and commentary.
Ailes was ultimately a symptom of America’s innate hypocrisy, it’s ability to look the other way when something challenges its orthodoxy. Bombshell had the guts to portray Ailes as a decaying, entitled monster, and equally gets away with a Malcolm McDowell cameo as Murdoch (a great bit of casting), the calm power broker behind the scenes, but we only ever see Trump on news footage. Roach splices in Theron as Kelly interviewing the real Trump. The film intersperses the drama with actual documentary footage – at one point it even shows us footage of the *real* Ailes. So why then not pull in Alec Baldwin or another actor to play Trump? He may be peripheral to the story but in truth he is crucial. Kelly explodes at one point after her husband suggests she was too easy on Trump in an interview where she calls him out on his sexist remarks. “It’s been a shitty year! I’m entitled to want it over!”. It’s a remark which sums up Bombshell to a tee.
Roach’s film arrived in the States not just at the end of another difficult political year, one marked eventually by Trump’s long-awaited impeachment over a scandal regarding the Ukraine (still raging as I type), but at the close of a decade which has perhaps been the most tumultuous in American politics since the 1970’s and the fall of Richard Nixon (one of many Republican Presidents that Ailes advised). Bombshell doesn’t feel like an explosive that has gone off in the face of the corrupt, pernicious right-wing forces who have seized America’s manifest destiny but rather a shell that went off in the faces of those traumatised by it. The victory for Kelly and Carlson is a pyrrhic one, simply an event they survived rather than were emboldened by. All of this happened just before millions still voted for Trump, despite knowing his close ties to Ailes, to Murdoch, to Fox News. He still wasn’t considered part of ‘the system’, even if this kind of abuse in endemic to that.
Perhaps this is all just too raw, still. Kelly herself didn’t believe Bombshell went far enough in portraying Ailes as a truly despicable person. The Loudest Voice, a Showtime mini-series starring Russell Crowe as Ailes also beat the film to the punch by a few months in characterising the deceased media mogul, which no doubt didn’t help matters. Audiences maybe simply could not cope with a deeper, continued sense of injustice, even though Bombshell does attempt to portray the three central women as survivors. It simply doesn’t go far enough in bringing the truly damaging forces behind Ailes, behind Fox, behind their years of intimidation and harassment, to heel in a way a court of law will likely never be able to do. While the film has moments that tap into this, with a quality main and supporting cast who do well with what they have on the page, it should have more impact than it does.
In the end, Bombshell could end up as the first, underwhelming salvo in a cultural response to America’s most self-destructive political adminstration that future films have the gumption to call out for what it truly is.