Low-timbered and gently authoritarian in tone, Megyn Kelly’s narration opens the first scenes of Bombshell with an explanation of Roger Ailes’s long history in the political sphere. It all began in the 1970s with stints as a media consultant for Nixon and Reagan, before he went on to play a pivotal role in shaping the voice of the contemporary political Right. As Kelly (Charlize Theron) appears, dressed in form-fitting red, white, and blue, she walks us through the bustling newsroom. She addresses us directly and, as if keenly aware of her unreliability, she outlines her journalistic integrity in a company without them. Before she can finish her speech, though, she’s interrupted by a passerby who repeatedly insists on complimenting her appearance.
From this sequence, we understand that Fox News is Roger Ailes, and that his network privileges conflict, incendiary personalities, and, of course, legs. “TV is an audiovisual medium,” he insists as he asks young women to spin slowly for him in his office and lift their skirts behind closed doors. As he asks a young intern to raise her skirt, revealing her panties, the camera lingers on her face as she tries to hold back her tears. His power and willingness to abuse it for personal gratification — and to punish those who dare disobey him — come to light in this harrowing moment.
Bombshell, the first major Hollywood film to address the #MeToo era directly, ends up being a rather toothless exercise in faux-empowerment cheerleading. Directed by Jay Roach, with a screenplay by Charles Randolph, the film balances the fourth-wall-breaking energy of a satirical comedy with the self-important attitude and faux-sincerity of a 6 o’clock news special. While it touches on the toxic masculinity and systematic sexism that permeates Fox News, it does little to contextualize the industry that allowed this behavior to thrive.
Over forty years earlier, in 1976, Sidney Lumet’s groundbreaking film, Network, predicted much of what Fox News would become. The film opens with a voice-of-God narrator explaining the fall from grace of fictional anchorman Howard Beale, his declining ratings, and subsequent firing. Comforted by his producer pal, Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale admits to suicidal ideation and wanting to kill himself on live TV during his last broadcast. Making light of the situation, Schumacher jokes that if he did, he’d get the highest ratings of his career. They go on to tease about the direction of the news, “suicide of the week, execution of the week, terrorist of the week… I love it. The Death Hour: great Sunday Show for the whole family.”
Throughout Network, we watch as the news transforms from an anchor reading out headlines into the rantings of an “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” But, as the film progresses, it becomes more than just an indictment of the transformation of news into entertainment; it is a scathing critique of capitalism. Whereas Network acts as an indictment of the transformation of news into entertainment, Bombshell is uncritical in its presentation of a world where this metamorphosis has long-taken place. Fox News could not be a more obvious inheritor of this system. “Nobody stops watching because of conflict,” one character says in Bombshell. And at Fox, after Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) comes forward with a sexual harassment suite against Ailes, conflict certainly abounds. Through Kidman, we watch Carlson struggle in her final days at the network. Her downfall coincides with the rise of fictionalized, ambitious Fox News-loving intern, Kayla (Margot Robbie), and her own harsh realization that her dream job might, in fact, be a nightmare.
In spite of its candid approach to dealing with the consequences — personal and professional — of a dangerous work environment, the film doesn’t explore the institutional failures that protect abusers and further punish victims. Its focus on Fox News — a network often derided in Hollywood (and elsewhere) for its inherent hypocrisy, built-in misogyny, racism, and fear-mongering — makes it easy to dismiss more significant structural issues among news networks and the film and television industry more broadly. While Network aptly suggests that it’s no longer about nations or political ideologies, Bombshell never quite manages to present such a brutal and accurate reality. If you’re going to go after Fox, you might as well actually go after them rather than just create a colorful backdrop for a wrought and simplistic examination of workplace sexual abuse.
It’s difficult to think of Bombshell without considering Ronan Farrow’s recent book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, which, in part, expands on Farrow’s previous journalistic take-downs of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. More integrally, it unravels the systematic pressures at NBC that sought to squash Farrow’s story, silence women, and continue to protect abusers. The book is about the systems that exist to protect the powerful, and above all else, the network itself. The crucial issue isn’t that Fox News exploits the fears, anxieties, and horniness of its viewers to such an extent that it becomes hostile to its workers; the problem is centralized corporate power and a lack of accountability that privileges the bottom line over individual safety.
While Bombshell depicts the tireless and challenging work of standing up to Roger Ailes, it also demonstrates how abuse is silenced and proliferates. What the film fails to do, though, is anchor the story within a greater context. How and why has the 24/7 news cycle become one of the world’s most profitable and powerful tools, and what impact has that had on democracy? Chances are, the answers to those questions might be intimately connected to questions of workplace safety and the fear of speaking out.