From director Jay Roach (Austin Powers), Bombshell deals with events at US network Fox News over a number of months during the summer of 2016, as Donald Trump seeks first the Republican nomination and then the Presidency, and a culture of sexual harassment, silencing of victims, and ruining of the careers of those who speak out comes to light.
The story is presented to us through three leads: two representing real figures at the network, one a composite of a number of people. The three leads are – conveniently for storytelling purposes – at different stages of their careers, with the culture at the company having very different effects upon them. At the latest stage of her career is Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) a long-term Fox presenter who is first shifted to an unappealing daytime slot, and then dismissed without reasons being identified. In her prime is the also-real Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), a star of the station, chosen to lead on moderating the Republican debates, and facing a storm, as her tough questioning of Donald Trump prompts a predictably ugly reaction from the candidate.
At the beginning of her career is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a young producer from a Christian, conservative background, who is very keen to advance rapidly. All three women work for station founder and then-current CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), a man who – now working for the Murdoch family – has overseen Fox’s growth into the most popular network of its type in America. As she realises her time at the station is coming to an end, Carlson seeks legal redress from Ailes for sexual harassment. Assuming that she will find support from other women at the station, she is shocked to find that no one is willing to speak out to corroborate, despite the issue being something of an open secret. At the same time, Kayla needs to decide how far she is willing to go in a station where the culture is of cover up and secrecy; to the point that the first friend she makes, Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon) is closeted, both as a lesbian and as a Democrat. Meanwhile, Megyn has to weather the storm from both Trump and his more unreasonable supporters – complete with extra security needing to be afforded to her family, while examining both her own conscience, and whether her support for her female colleagues is capable of challenging the powerful executive.
Bombshell does a number of things very well indeed. It is anchored by uniformly excellent performances. Theron is uncanny as Megyn Kelly, and really provides the cinematic equivalent of the screen presence that made Kelly a star of US television. Many of the supporting players are chosen for their extraordinary resemblances to the established Fox names: Alanna Ubach as Jeanine Pirro, and Kevin Dorff as Bill O’Reilly being notable examples – the latter more so, as the real O’Reilly does appear in the certain shots from the network’s programming. Margot Robbie is terrific in a role that requires an unusual mix of confidence, naivety, values, grit and vulnerability. When she finally finds herself at the mercy of Ailes, we see her descend into a very authentic fear, and the sense that she is in way over her head.
The film is very effective in essaying the self-doubt of women at the station, as they wonder what they could have done to encourage such advances – the tendency for the victims to attach blame to themselves. Those not affected seek to rationalise Ailes’ (and O’Reilly’s – with the network host receiving severance for similar allegations around the same time) behaviour, by noting his frequent acts of kindness, and balancing this behaviour against the loyalty he had shown to a number of them.
We see an excellent representation of the entrenching and enablement of this culture, with flashbacks to the treatment of presenter Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi) from network anchor Brian Wilson in 2007, leading to her dismissal from Fox. It is made clear to viewers early on that staff members could not be themselves if they deviated from the Fox view, and that refusal to play the game would result in dismissal or career stagnation for all but the luckiest (Kelly being one that did survive declining Ailes’ advances). The story also represents the more subtle ways that harassment was dressed up as jokes or insinuations, leading to that very issue of doubt in victims’ minds that prevented the situation being resolved far earlier. Finally, somewhat well-presented is the cynical network ploy of reducing a ‘news’ station to playing on the fears and prejudices of its viewership; seeking to make villains of whole demographics.
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For all of this, Bombshell is only a very qualified success. Kidman’s Carlson is side-lined for long portions of the film, and underused when there. The three leads, though complementary in the ages and career status of their characters, serve only to fragment the film. At the start it seems to be Kayla’s story, with Carr serving as the guide to her experience. As the film progresses it becomes Kelly’s story, but starts with an enormous amount of time devoted to her coverage of Trump and the treatment she received afterwards. It is somewhat relevant, as it allows for a demonstration of her relationship to Roger and the network – and also allows for a demonstration of the executive’s paranoia, as he feels Megyn may have been poisoned on the morning of the debate – but it eats up an enormous amount of time: time we are not spending establishing the culture of fear, and seeing this through Kayla’s eyes.
The film then takes nearly an hour to begin to coalesce into one coherent story; the shot from marketing of our three leads in the elevator taking place about that far in. Just as the three women come together, they are separated again immediately. Ailes’ is portrayed as decrepit, and slimy – even referring to himself as Jabba the Hut; but we fall between the two stools of fully showing his behaviour, and hiding it behind an office door to maintain mystique and encourage the fear of what exactly is going on in there. This leaves the film hinting at the full horror, partially describing the full horror, but then utterly unsure of how far to pull its punches.
We are told how Fox News operates as a conservative voice with power at the top level of politics, but it doesn’t really show this, beyond the occasional attempt to reign in Kelly, and Ailes taking a call from Trump. In fact, Megyn is shown as broadly supported at times, somewhat undercutting the arguments the film is making: particularly, as the real life Megyn Kelly described that part of the film as inaccurate. If the first rule of film is show, don’t tell, then Bombshell falls at the first hurdle, as characters talk more about the culture than are seen experiencing that culture.
The film is extraordinarily well-acted, and some of the most horrible internal debates that victims have, along with the self-disgust that those experiencing harassment often put themselves through, is displayed very effectively. The film is damaged, however, by a lack of focus, a feeling that merely the surface is being scratched, and that the writing and directing team really aren’t sure from whose perspective we are supposed to be experiencing this. Although defintely worth a watch, Bombshell could have been so much more.