“Bombshell” is a must-see film for men and women, liberals and conservatives alike. It is a study in sexual harassment defined, as a cross-section of power, money, careers and yes, sex.
Since this story is “ripped from the headlines,” if you think you know it all, think again. There are more side stories and more women involved in the overall scandal than ever made the front page. The previews made it look a TV movie-style rehash of something I already knew, but turned out to be one of the best movies of the year and earned an Oscar nomination.
Charlize Theron and John Lithgow give career-high performances through the heavy makeup of their equally well-honed and uncanny impressions of their counterparts, Megyn Kelly and Roger Ailes. However, Margot Robbie manages to upstage both of them portraying a fictional character who is our point-of-view guide through what life at Fox News is like for a young, ambitious, attractive woman. Nicole Kidman is ostensibly the main character, Gretchen Carlson, but her performance is definitely understated in comparison.
I’m pleased Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Trumbo”) and Theron decided to produce “Bombshell” because it resurfaces a story that may have been forgotten or altogether missed just a few years ago in today’s rapidly changing news cycle. The key to its success, though, might be tied more to writer Charles Randolph, who also wrote the acclaimed “Big Short,” executed in a similar style and also showcased a very new Robbie at the time.
By now, America is familiar with Ailes’ meteoric rise in media as the “legman” who turned Fox News into a dominant political force by giving audiences what they wanted, i.e. pretty girls and extremist views. The movie initially sets the stage with a fast-talking Kelly striding through newsrooms while narrating how women were expected to dress (no slacks) and how they were supposed to show loyalty in order to move up the ladder (sexual favors), while in the background, even more examples are acted out in real-time to great effect. As Ailes was quoted as saying, “To get ahead, you’ve got to give a little head.”
Then the movie switches into a more traditional narrative mode, following Carlson and Kelly through their own treatment in the newsroom, their lawsuits and death threats, while Robbie's character lives it all out herself in dramatic fashion.
The three women all seem to come by their final conclusions reluctantly, at first going along to get along as women have for decades, but eventually the constant harassment and more is too much for each of them. Once they speak up, first in hushed tones to fellow female co-workers and later to management and lawyers, they discover the dozens of other women who have been treated the same way. In fact, one of the most effective moments in the film is when real-life accusers are shown in a sad parade on screen, briefly but powerfully telling their own stories.
Each of the main characters has to wonder what speaking up will do to their jobs, their careers and even in some cases their very lives. As Kate McKinnon's fun sidekick character says who took a job at Fox News because no one else offered her a job and then couldn't leave because no one else will hire a Fox employee, “It’s easier to be a closeted lesbian at Fox than it is to be a closeted liberal.”
Kelly emerges as key to the downfall of Ailes, though Carlson got all the attention for being the first public accuser at the time. According to this film, Kelly did the behind-the-scenes investigation and rabble-rousing necessary to put the final feminist nail in his coffin.
Judging from her change in daily visibility in real life, Kelly did pay the high price of her career in order to come out with the truth in this case. I was never a fan of hers before, but “Bombshell” actually makes me feel sorry for her.
In the end, Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, who was ousted around the same time for the same reasons, were awarded more money in severance ($65 million) than the dozens of women named in the suits ($50 million). I have never shaken my head more while watching a movie, but the constant, familiar scenes of minor and major sexual harassment were like relentless waves of frustration hitting the audience. I can only hope that left, right, male, female all got the message this time.