In many ways the women in the broadcast media as portrayed in Jay Roach’s Bombshell aren’t much different from the tough, ambitious men. They backbite, seek favours, tread on competition. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where women don’t look out for each other. Like the current Showtime TV series The Loudest Voice, Bombshell explores the cult of misogyny and bullying that underpinned Fox News Channel, specifically its CEO Roger Ailes’ regime from 1996 till his sacking by Rupert Murdoch in 2016.
He was fired after 23 counts of sexual harassment were brought against him, because however brutal and self-serving ambitious women are, there is an extra weapon in the male arsenal – gender bullying. Specifically, men in positions of power exercising their perceived entitlement to prey on women for sex.
Roach places the wider context of misogyny, especially in right wing culture front and centre. The film opens with Donald Trump’s year-long mud-slinging campaign against Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, a feud that began with Kelly saying to Trump, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump retaliated in a relentless twitter campaign and in interviews including telling CNN, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
The real Kelly stated, “It was bizarre because I became the story. He was so very focused on me that I became the story, and you know, you never want to be the story when you’re a newsperson.”
This point is paraphrased in the film by Kelly as played by Charlize Theron, who, like all the female Fox presenters, was groomed to a Miss America beauty queen appearance. It’s exhausting and ugly to watch the Barbie doll uniforms, the high heels and fake eyelashes, including a visually powerful scene that takes us inside the dressing room where the female presenters select from racks of uniform figure hugging, short dresses.
The film’s opening sequence is Kelly directly addressing the audience, taking us on a hyper paced tour of Fox News, intercut with archival footage, to bring us up to speed with location and events. It’s a bit too fast and furious, and identikit staff make it hard to work out who’s who. Dramatically Kelly is the protagonist but the multi focus on two other women, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and fictional composite character Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) knocks the film’s structure out of shape at times.
It’s when the story goes tight focus on key scenes that the writing, dialogue and excellent acting find their power. John Lithgow humanises Ailes, boorish and generous by turns. Allison Janney nails the small but key role of the lawyer who owed Ailes a debt. This is the irony – they all owe him. He has used his power to support people in medical, financial and family crisis, he has used his power to mentor and lift up ambitious staffers like Kelly. But these acts of mentorship all too often come at a soul-destroying cost.
It falls on Robbie to portray the moment when playful banter turns to sexual threat. She and Lithgow play that key encounter behind the closed doors of Ailes’ office, to distressing perfection. Director, writer and cast make this a skilful examination of how a predator’s attention is fixated on his ‘entitled’ prize and how grooming begins and escalates. Writer Charles Randolph said he wanted to draw attention to that grooming of female cadets and how sexuality was brought into the equation from day one.
In contrast, there’s a closet lesbian sub plot that seems token and caricatured in spite of the always watchable Kate McKinnon. Scenes with Murdoch and sons seem ambivalent about what point of view Fox’s owners actually take. At times, scenes of Kidman as the solitary Carslon fighting in the background, seem laboured and misplaced. However, Carlson’s face to face with Ailes when he lambasts her for not wearing makeup on air is a knockout.
It was Carlson, a Stamford graduate and actual Miss America 1989 who was galvanised by the account in Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room of a female producer being sexually harassed by Ailes. Carlson filed a lawsuit complaining Ailes sabotaged her career and had her fired after she spurned his advances. It was her going public that encouraged another 20 women to come forward, including Kelly, though there’s no evidence the real life Kelly and Carlson had even the subtle solidarity hinted at in the film.
In a Q&A for Gold Derby, Roach explained “My empathy was right away to what Gretchen was up against – go up against the titan of Fox and risk never working in broadcasting again.” He added, “I don’t think men talk enough about this stuff and women should be safe at work. There’s collective guilt among men and the question, how can I contribute something?”
Roach’s previous films include Trumbo, also with an ethical theme, about a man being persecuted for political beliefs; while Randolph was the screenwriter of The Big Short, about corruption in the mortgage market. They’re both still on the zeitgeist with this #MeToo offering. Overall, it’s a sincere, hard hitting treatment of a story that affects us all, and making us aware that our cultural power bases are built by and for men like Ailes. It’s worth remembering that Ailes was a media consultant for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and for mayor Rudy Giuliani on his first campaign. In 2016, Ailes became an adviser on the Donald Trump campaign, helping prepare debates. It’s a paradigm we are only beginning to challenge.
Bombshell is in cinemas January 16, 2020