The best scene of Bombshell, the based-on-a-true-story dramatization of sexual harassment at Fox News, is one that never really happened. In it, Kayla, a young and ambitious producer at the network, gets an opportunity that doubles as currency at Fox News: a private meeting with Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO. Knowing that he has the power to make her career in journalism—less aware, at the time, that he also has the power to break it—Kayla sits on Ailes’s couch, thrilled. She tells Ailes about her career. He listens for a moment. And then he gives her an order: “Stand up and twirl for me.”
Kayla is confused. She is uncomfortable. But she does as she’s asked. She gives a quick spin, her mouth frozen in a tight smile, attempting to make light of the move. The camera focuses on her face. Ailes—his initial warmth growing colder as he issues commands—asks her to hike up the bottom of her dress. She resists. He asks again. Finally, she complies, as the interaction she had thought was a job interview congeals into something else. She pulls up the hem of her dress. Ailes, played by John Lithgow, breathes heavily. She pulls the dress up higher, her hands trembling, until her underwear is exposed.
The scene is intimate. It is invasive. It is painful to watch. That’s in part because it is shot so unsparingly. But it is also because the assault Bombshell’s camera depicts is not physically violent. The abuse here is psychological. Kayla, without realizing it, has walked into a battle for her dignity. The writer Jill Filipovic explained the scene’s power like this: “Reading about sexual harassment dulls it. Seeing it is a crucial reminder of how repulsive and destructive Ailes, and sexual harassers like he was alleged to be, can be.”
So it is notable, in that regard, that the woman in the scene is one of the characters in Bombshell who is not based on a specific person. Kayla Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is instead a composite figure—a woman woven from the stories of multiple real-life people. She is the product of a literature review, basically: Kayla’s experiences in the film are summaries of several of the allegations made about Ailes in sexual-harassment lawsuits that Fox News employees brought against the network. Her character is also informed by interviews Bombshell’s filmmakers conducted with many of the women who made those claims. While nondisclosure agreements have kept many of those women publicly silent, Kayla, in a sense, gives them a voice.
Kayla is one of three women at Bombshell’s center; the other two are Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Bombshell is a work of uncanniness. Starting with the makeup that transformed Theron into Kelly, the film’s pleasures and its indictments come in large part through its painstaking re-creations of real-life people. Kayla, though, suggests the limitations of the simulacrum. It is revealing that one of the main characters, in this film that has marketed itself as a retelling of the sexual-harassment story at Fox News, is a work of fiction.
But Bombshell is primarily Kelly’s story. She is the one who is capable of breaking the movie’s fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience. She is the one whose arc, in the film, bends the most sharply. There is an inherent challenge in that arrangement: To tell the story of workplace sexual harassment through the experience of Megyn Kelly is … to tell the story of workplace sexual harassment through the experience of Megyn Kelly. It is to have a tale told by a narrator who is, if not fully unreliable, then deeply fraught.
Bombshell nods to that tension. It features a brief clip of one of Kelly’s more infamous on-air moments: her glib insistence that “Santa just is white.” The film also features, along the way, assorted acknowledgments of the Fox News complicity machine—chief among them, representations of the many women at the network who had succeeded within its rigged system and who therefore had a vested interest in maintaining that system as it was. (If you are not a fan of Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host who recently wrote a book titled Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy, Bombshell provides several scenes that will leave you feeling fully vindicated.)
But the main way the film wrestles with the complications of its own story is by eliding them. Kelly may be the star of the show; Kayla, however, is its moral center. (Carlson—who was the first to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Ailes—is something of the side character in the trio.) The scene between Kayla and Ailes is what roots the film as it explores the legal battle that led to Ailes’s ouster from the network. It is through Kayla that the horrors and humiliations of sexual harassment are brought to the film’s screen. “I’ve never filmed anything as excruciating,” Bombshell’s director, Jay Roach, said of that interaction.
It’s understandable, in some ways, that the character doing that work in the film would be fictional. My colleague Conor Friedersdorf, writing after the publication of the Babe.net report about an unnamed woman’s sexual experience with Aziz Ansari and the New Yorker story “Cat Person,” argued that fiction can be functional. Invented stories, he suggested, could be the most efficient way to talk about the things so many people wanted to be talking about when it came to those stories: the gray areas of consent; sex that is bad not in a criminal sense, but in another way. The benefit of “Cat Person” was that those discussions could be had about people who did not exist. Fiction affords a kind of freedom.
Nonfiction brings complications. Megyn Kelly, with her glib comments about Santa and blackface and “thug mentality”—with all the work she did to build up the network that has helped bring America so low—is a notably difficult vehicle for discussions of justice. But Kayla Pospisil is not. Kayla is no more and no less than what Bombshell tells us she is. She makes few demands, of her screenwriters or of her audience. She brings none of the baggage that comes with a real existence.
In some ways, that’s a productive thing. Robbie’s performance is masterful, and Kayla’s lack of specificity makes her an apt stand-in for the many people at Fox News who are not part of the story Bombshell is telling. But Kayla, a figure informed by everyone and therefore by no one, also makes the movie smoother and easier than it might be. The character frees the film of the obligations that come with telling true stories about real people. That freedom, however, also allows a story about sexual harassment to wander, at times, into the realm of the fanciful.
You can see this in another composite character in the film: Kayla’s best friend at the network, Jess Carr, played by Kate McKinnon. McKinnon has described her character as a “closet liberal and closet gay woman.” Her presence allows Bombshell to point out that Fox News is a more complicated place than its broadcasts might make it seem. But McKinnon’s character allows Bombshell to do something else, as well: to serve up a scene in which Jess and Kayla are lying in Jess’s bed, ostensibly having slept together. Was the scene between these two composite characters making a point about the secret lives of women? Maybe. Would Laura Mulvey also have some things to say about it? Probably.
Bombshell is rendered in the style of Vice and The Big Short (its screenwriter, Charles Randolph, also wrote the screenplay for the latter). Here, too, are wide-ranging tragedies expressed through an aesthetic that verges on cartoonish. The film—its pun of a title offers a hint at what’s to come—has a kaleidoscopic quality. It is primary-colored and stylized and dizzying. It is, like the cable-news network that is its subject and its setting, shiny and hectic. But Bombshell’s message, for all that, is straightforward: All women, no matter their politics, deserve to work in environments that are respectful and safe.
That is an important argument, and Kayla, ambitious and vulnerable and fictional, expresses it well. Kelly and Carlson, however, complicate it considerably. Those women, as real and historical figures, have contributed to the rise of a network that has often made a mockery of the very things Bombshell celebrates: collaboration, courage, justice. Fox News has made its reputation and its money by delighting in division—by insisting that some women are more deserving than others. That is the uncomfortable fact of this film. Kayla helps Bombshell elide it. What would the film have looked like had her character not been part of its universe—had Bombshell reckoned more directly with its real and deeply flawed heroines? It wouldn’t have been as sleek. But it might have been more revealing.