BOMBSHELL. Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robee, and John Lithgow. Also, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Jay Roach. Rated M (Mature themes, sexual references and coarse language). 109 min.
This American biographical drama is based loosely on the accounts of a group of women employed at Fox News, USA, who exposed its CEO and Founder, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. The film was made following the death of Ailes, whose employment was terminated by Rupert Murdoch.
Ailes’ empire crumbled one year after Harvey Weinstein. The movie is directed in quasi-documentary style, with a loose hold on the film’s underlying themes.The film uses actual footage, and is a semi-fictionalised account of three women who brought Ailes to justice.
The three women at Fox were Megan Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) ran Fox News with fierce resolve from 1996 to 2016, and at some time all three women reported to him. Fox News was the Murdoch family’s most profitable asset, and Ailes became a threat.
Kelly co-moderated the 2016 Republican debate and drew national attention to herself when she called Donald Trump out publicly on TV for his treatment of women - creating a crisis for Fox News. Carson co-anchored a popular program at Fox. Pospisil was a woman recently hired at Fox, who came from an evangelical Christian family, and was abused by Ailes.
Gretchen filed a law suit against Ailes, and Kelly, the network’s biggest star, later came forward with her own stories of harassment. Pospisil’s abuse occurs in the film’s most telling moment; she was a character introduced by the film to reflect a composite of various network employees, who had to find a way of coping with Ailes’s lewd behaviour.
The film is a dramatic look inside a controversial media empire, and tells the story of the women who brought down the man who created it. Roger Ailes was sacked from his position for sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, but both had had been in place for a long time at Fox News under his management and direction.
This movie reflects a paradox. The abuse it depicts is explosively revealing, but the film is directed and produced ultimately to entertain. The movie’s strength lies in the unsentimental depiction of female solidarity and empowerment, but fails to explore the complex dynamics of sexual harassment and attraction. It skims the surface of discrimination, but stays superficially at the edge of what it most wants to consider. In scripting and direction, it entertains with material that is emotional and seriously harrowing but deserving to be treated in greater depth. Kelly, for example, had been part of the power structure that sustained her for a long time; her personality - captured by Charlize Theron, in an amazingly look-alike performance, impressively elicits a degree of sympathy that takes the viewer in the wrong direction. Pospisil shows the horror of sexual harassment, in a scene that is the film’s most compelling representation of victimisation - heightened by knowledge of her religious upbringing - but her character is fictional.
The acting in the movie by the three women is impressive, as that of John Lithgow in the role of Ailes. The film is a compelling account of the women’s bravery, but more needed to be said of what lay underneath employee ambition at Fox and Fox’s encouragement of it, Ailes’ appalling behaviour, and why the sexist attitudes of Fox News was allowed to exist for such a long time.
The film is too good to look at, for what it really wants to say. And the mingling of fact and fiction seems unnecessary to reinforce the core messages of the film which is the empowerment and resolve of women, courageous enough to fight sexual harassment in a structured environment that shouted “male power”.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office For Film and Broadcasting
Studio Canal Pty. Ltd.
Released January 9th., 2020