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Bombshell

In the summer of 2016, Fox News was hit with an earth-shaking scandal, in which no less than 23 alleged victims came forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of longtime CEO Roger Ailes. The case resulted in Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson parting ways with the company, among multiple other departures. Easily the greatest of them was the ouster of Roger Ailes himself, forced to resign in July of 2016. He fell over and died of a head injury ten months later.

Of course it’s a story worthy of examination, as we’re all still living in a political media landscape dominated by the beast of Ailes’ making. That’s not even getting started on the unfolding #MeToo era and our ongoing cultural discussion about feminism, sexual assault, workplace harassment, and so on.

It’s an important story. It’s also a story of, by, and for women, here driven by the core trio of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie. And yet we have a movie written and directed exclusively by straight white men. *heavy sigh* Whoo boy.

The director is Jay Roach, no stranger to political films with thorny topics. Trumbo was great, the TV films “Recount” and “Game Change” were both well-received, and even the satirical comedy The Campaign was okay. Meanwhile, screenwriting duties were handled by Charles Randolph, who helped write the killer script for The Big Short after… um, Love and Other Drugs. Okay.

I’d have a lot more confidence in this writer/director team on a film about Fox News, if only it wasn’t a film about a distinctly female experience. A film about living with sexism, workplace harassment, slut-shaming, and the ever-present threat and trauma of sexual harassment… and it’s being told from a male perspective. This could go so horribly wrong in any number of ways.

And yet it kinda works.

Back in my review of Black Christmas (2019), I asked how any one filmmaker could accurately depict both the male and female sides of sexual assault in an authentic and thought-provoking way. This movie desperately needed to find an answer, and quick. Because as much as this film is about the women who were victims of Roger Ailes (here played by John Lithgow), it’s just as much about Ailes himself and the workplace culture of Fox News.

Remember, Fox News is so universally reviled that anyone with that company in their work history is practically guaranteed to never find work anywhere else ever again. This is especially true of Carlson and Kelly (respectively played by Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron), who publicly speak out against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Throughout the whole picture, they’re taking heat from the right and the left.

The pressure for everyone at Fox News — down to the lowliest intern — to not get fired is even more overwhelming than usual, with the result that everyone’s only out for themselves. Paradoxically, this means unwavering loyalty to the network and the top brass, vocally and visibly demonstrated at all times. The end result is a workplace in which nobody will stick their neck out for anyone else, and the top brass could literally get away with murder. Even the women on staff — especially the women on staff — will throw each other under the bus or turn a blind eye toward sexual harassment allegations if it means keeping their heads down and playing the game.

Basically put, it’s the kind of organization that could only be built by a paranoid, shallow, self-serving tyrant who thrives on chaos.

The filmmakers were tasked with getting into the mind of Roger Ailes and the media juggernaut created in his image. How has he gotten away with mistreating so many women for so long? How can he engage in flagrant sexual misconduct and then lie with a straight face when he gets called out for it? Perhaps most importantly, how does the workplace sexism trickle down, and how do we recognize those same signs within our own workplaces and within ourselves?

These questions benefit from a male perspective, and that’s a huge part of why they work so well here. Of course, the obvious drawback is in portraying the affected women with the male gaze, but that’s not really as much of a factor here because… well, it’s Fox News. Every woman on staff is already under the male gaze 24/7. And if that comes off as sleazy, so much the better for proving a point.

Of course, the other huge drawback is in portraying what it’s like to live as a woman under the constant threat and/or trauma of sexual harassment. It’s in the body language, the emotions, all the subtle little nonverbal tics. A great example is in the teaser trailer, in which our three main characters are in an elevator together and whole volumes are being said between them without a word spoken.

This is stuff that no male director could possibly have experienced or lived through, so how could he put it on film? Evidently, the solution that Jay Roach came up with was to hire the most incredibly talented women he could find, set the camera to “extreme close-up”, and give them free rein. Is it perfect? No. Is it as good as a female director could’ve done? Probably not. But it’s still pretty darn good.

I can’t possibly give enough credit to the cast. Major kudos are due to the spellbinding performances from Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, as there was literally zero room for error here. So completely and flawlessly transforming two celebrities into two other celebrities, and maintaining the illusion through nearly every frame of a two-hour movie, must have been a Herculean task. Even more impressive, they were able to humanize two women who’ve appeared as shrill conservative caricatures through so many years on TV.

But then, does any woman really deserve to be sexually exploited or treated as subhuman, regardless of her political leanings or workplace? Of course not.

Additionally, it helps that we’ve got Mark Duplass on hand as Kelly’s husband, with real-life siblings Luke and Savannah Judy playing Carlson’s kids. Family members in biopics: Always a good way to keep the lead characters grounded and provide some levity in the bargain.

Then we have the third lead character, and she was invented for the film! Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisil, an amalgam of 20-odd anonymous women who came forward with sexual assault allegations against Ailes. Kayla is young and wide-eyed, an Evangelical fanatic born and raised watching Fox News, with a massive social media presence and a bone-deep passion for making her name as a conservative pundit. So the closest and most obvious analogue is probably Tomi Lahren.

Kayla (and Robbie’s portrayal thereof) serves beautifully well as an audience viewpoint character. She’s a sounding board for all sorts of exposition about the seedy underbelly and cutthroat culture of Fox News, and she perfectly demonstrates the horrible damage that can be done by corruption at the top. Of course, it also helps that she’s got a dynamic and thoroughly entertaining rapport with Jess Carr (another fictional amalgam character, played by Kate McKinnon), a closeted Democrat lesbian who works at Fox News because she can’t land a job anywhere else.

Kayla and Jess have a number of great scenes together, but easily Kayla’s best scene is the one between her and Megyn Kelly. One is a young fresh-faced up-and-comer at Fox who’s only now going through the worst that Ailes can throw at her. The other is a veteran who’s already lived through her trial by sexual assault. That was so many years ago, why didn’t Kelly step forward sooner? How many young women could she have saved if she had? And at what cost?

Then we have the supporting cast. Oh my god, this supporting cast. We’ve got Stephen Root, Richard Kind, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Connie Britton, Brian d’Arcy James, Jennifer Morrison, Tricia Helfer, Alice Eve, Ashley Greene, the list goes on and on. The scale and variety of actors in this film is staggering, every one of whom delivers a mind-blowing impersonation under top-notch makeup.

But what’s maybe more noteworthy than the imitators is when the filmmakers don’t use them. Take Bill O’Reilly, for example. When O’Reilly is in the writer’s room, setting his staff against each other to see who’s got the best material for his next show, he’s played by Kevin Dorff. But when O’Reilly is on the Jimmy Kimmel show defending Roger Ailes, that is the actual untampered archival footage of Bill O’Reilly himself. Jarring and inconsistent? Sure. But it gets the point across that this exchange was not invented by the filmmakers. This is the awful sexist shit that was actually said on live TV, in the public record, to defend a rich old white man accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women across several decades.

But getting back to the cast, half the fun of this movie is in seeing which Republican high roller will be showing up next, and who will be playing them. Not unlike The Big Short. In fact, this movie has a great deal in common with The Big Short. Once again, the filmmakers use voiceover and onscreen graphics in novel and effective ways, every single instance helping us understand the mindset of the characters and the greater culture of Fox News. Every time the characters break the fourth wall, it feels like we’re being let in on a secret, given a window into the inner workings that Fox News would rather we didn’t know about.

(Side note: I notice that Charles Randolph’s name wasn’t attached to Vice. I guess now we know what that film was missing.)

So are there any nitpicks? Well, the pacing is the big one. The filmmakers try to cram a lot into less than two hours, and too many moments fly by without any chance to really breathe. It makes the movie feel unfocused, and it certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers do such an uneven job at juggling the three main plotlines.

As much as I want to promote female filmmakers, especially with regards to cinema about sexual harassment and assault, I have to admit that Bombshell is a good movie. The performances range anywhere from decent to phenomenal, the makeup and costuming work is amazing, and the script is whip-smart from start to finish. Fox News is a subject well-deserving of the Big Short treatment, and I’m glad to see the sensitive topic handled as gracefully as could be expected from an all-male writing/directing team.

I know the end-of-year competition is fierce right now, but this is one to check out.

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