One of the world’s most widely discussed issues is also one of its most unfortunately frequent – male-on-female sexual harassment. Whilst not an entirely modern problem, the very public investigation, debate and decry of it is, with cases emerging on an alarmingly regular basis. Each walk of life seems to have them – usually with one high-profile, watershed moment to trigger the discussion. The movie world has Harvey Weinstein, the sports world has Larry Nassar, and the journalism world has Roger Ailes. Bombshell tells the story of the latter, and the women bravest enough to speak out against the all-powerful news patriarch just as society took its first, overdue steps towards gender equality.
The story is brought to bear through the world-weary eyes of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the first to seek action against the network’s figurehead following years of sexual mistreatment. The recollections she gives to her legal team are mirrored by the stomach-churning experiences of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional character composited from the multiple, very real stories of Ailes’s many targets. If you’ve heard from elsewhere acclaim for their performances then rest assured, it’s warranted; Robbie in particular shows bravery, straying from her usually-confident leading roles to place her character in positions of both vulnerability and defeat, exposed both physically and emotionally during the film.
It’s an astute move to depict this scandal through characters at different points in their lives and careers – this gives not only a sense of scale but also of the long-standing and widespread nature of Ailes’s depravity. Gretchen illustratesthe timescale and after-effects of the abuse, whereas Kayla represents its horrifying origins. Their differing ages show how for so long, a woman’s career was unavoidably and indecently linked to her sexuality and deference. Of course, at the centre of them both and in the prime of her career, stands Megyn Kelly.
Even though the central story on sexual misconduct does not immediately revolve around her, the entire film is centered on the powerful, long-serving Fox News anchor Kelly, played by an unwavering Charlize Theron. Through a mixture of integrity, privacy, shame and even fear, Megyn tells us that despite her “big mouth” she has little interest in eclipsing the stories that she covers, initially deflecting controversy from an opening act run-in with Donald Trump (somehow one of the film’s lesser talking points). However, you don’t earn nominations for performances in a leading role without taking charge of the story, and that is what Megyn eventually does. With the most to lose, a pervading sense of right and an eye to the future of her gender, she catapults into the center of this spotlight, forced to both validate the accusations and take the brunt of the criticism for doing so. As powerful a portrayal as Theron’s is, it still has a glimmer of doubt running through it pivotal to the tension and struggle of all women involved.
With the presence of scriptwriter Charles Randolph, who famously co-wrote The Big Short with Adam McKay, comparisons to that and other modern meta-fictions such as Vice are inevitable. The fourth wall is occasionally broken to explain concepts just as Margot Robbie herself did in Randolph’s most famous prior work, though admittedly not to the same degree. Whilst using the likenesses of those involved would be difficult and perhaps even illegal, this Randolph picture also needs familiar faces to ground the story as one from the “real world”. Enter, then, Alice Eve (Star Trek), D’Arcy Carden (The Good Place), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Mark Duplass (The League) and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) as just a few of the recognizable players outside of the three headline stars. The added bonus of this is that Theron’s cosmetic transformation into Megyn Kelly becomes even more impressive, a sense of duty and respect to her story evident.
Where Bombshell falters is in the depictions of its literal bad GUYS – the corrupted patriarchy. There is often a sense that not everything is being said, that not all of the accusations levied at Roger Ailes are shown – Kelly has said on her YouTube show that the film “let Roger off easy”. Crucially, not all women are presented as victims and not all men are presented as monsters, and yet in John Lithgow’s villain there exist many complications. It is obviously impossible to feel sympathy for a man who so betrayed his loved ones and failed his employees but as EJ Dickson’s brilliant article once pointed out of Master of None’s “Chef Jeff”, Ailes is a “bad guy who does nice things”. Of course it was necessary to place doubt in the mind of Megyn Kelly before she takes down the establishment that built her, but perhaps too much stock is placed in the (literally) perverted sense of loyalty that her commander-in-chief demanded. There are further, unexplored accusations directly and subtly alluded to throughout the film – names mentioned as fellow guilty parties then almost instantly forgotten. It may be a sign of power and influence, but Ailes’s superiors and their roles are never fully scrutinized; however, these shortcomings can be read as reflections of the real-world tendency to ignore accusers like those here.
Bombshell does not feature a female voice behind the camera (or, it must be said, behind this review). However, it is still a film about present-day female struggle, sacrifice – and success; that such a thing has to be pointed out is both a celebration and condemnation of the times. Unfortunately, there are still those out there who roll their eyes at the triumph of movements such as #MeToo, and such individuals should avoid this film at all costs. However, for those with either interest or investment in these endeavors, then this may come to be the standard-bearer for their big-screen depictions.