For a movie about the bravery necessary for victims of sexual assault and harrassment in the #MeToo movement to come forward and speak truth to power, Bombshell, a film about the women Roger Ailes victimized at Fox News, is remarkably cowardly. It is a film whose central premise, that what befell these women is despicable regardless of their political views or character, is laudable, but whose execution is messy, inconsistent and, at times, infantile.

Bombshell focuses on three women, two real and one fictional. Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor who went to war with Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican Primary, only to wind up kissing the ring to keep her public life running smoothly. Nicole Kidman is Gretchen Carlson, the veteran at the network who falls out of favor with Roger (Jonathan Lithgow) and gets let go, kickstarting the legal campaign against the network honcho. Then there’s Margot Robbie as Kayla, a sort of Tomi Lahren stand-in who represents the millennial conservative voice.

Between these three figures, director Jay Roach and The Big Short co-writer Charles Randolph weave a prismatic view of Fox News as an industrial propaganda machine and the many contradictions that fuel its everyday operations. There’s a frustrating cynicism to the presentation at hand, because the film relies heavily on voice-over narration and other fourth-wall-breaking narrative tics to make the film feel like an exploded diagram look at a subject that only intermittently is treated seriously. Roach’s considerable comedic chops have dulled over the years as he’s transitioned into being a “serious” filmmaker, so many of the film’s attempts at comedy fall flat and work against its other aims.

The three primary figures are treated with a three-dimensional approach, laying bare (some) of their foibles and depicting their interactions with Roger as suitably horrific. If Roach accomplishes nothing else here, the scenes where Lithgow uses a walker in a fat suit shouting things at network employees are so over the top, so that when he gets any of these women alone, the constant purr of office background noise disappears in his office and every minute is horrifying and tense. In the micro, everyone involved really nails that portion of the film.

But the majority of the film isn’t in those difficult sequences. It’s in the winking, backstage looks at Fox News itself. Make no mistake, while Roach wears his compassion for Roger’s victims on his sleeve, the movie is really a feature-length opportunity to skewer right-wing disinformation and poke relentless fun at the background players. This wouldn’t be the end of the world if that’s what the film was solely about, but all of the passable attempts at comedy and goofy stunt casting in the supporting roles (Richard Kind showing up for a pair of scenes as Rudy Giuliani is incredibly distracting) make the movie feel like an overlong SNL cold open.

This brings us to the film’s central problem. Roach and Randolph purposely shield the intended audience (assumedly liberal) from as many of the three main characters’ unsavory political views as possible. Sure, there’s a brief moment where Megyn Kelly’s “santa is white” diatribe plays on a TV in the background, but the women are all otherwise sanded down to be as “safe” and sympathetic as possible. But this is nothing more than a cop out.

When every Fox News employee is treated like a one-note joke except the ones who experience sexual harassment, the filmmakers are overplaying their hands, knowing there will be a subset of viewer who thinks the women deserved it for their shitty political views or their hypocritical support of a sexual predator they helped put in the white house. By refusing to show all of these characters as three-dimensional, and by heaping on the leading role charm to its protagonists, the filmmakers call to question their own thesis.

Either the persistent machinations of sexual abuse in the workplace are universally reprehensible and we should get to see the messier, harder to love side of its victims, or we have to sugarcoat their very existence to make their struggles watchable so the filmmakers can get their Geraldo jokes off. The fact this binary even needs to be addressed makes Bombshell’s apparent popularity among awards season voters all the more grating. This is a coward’s picture that is about to spend a few months getting patted on the back, as if anybody involved risked anything to bring it to life.

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