Bombshell is true to its title, leaving its viewers exiting the cinema with shellshock.
The film is the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face, making you sit up straight in your seat and pay attention.
It’s a must-see not because it’s got the best-ever acting or direction, but because of its terrible messages. I would encourage viewers not to watch this as their Saturday night unwind – this film will replace the warm fuzzy feeling of a classic cinema experience with a sense of deep discomfort.
This is a film to be watched critically, not easily.
The plot covers the far too recent story of the sea of sexual harassment within Fox News’ impenetrable walls. A biopic of Fox’ tumultuous life in 2016, it tells the tale of how its female journalists brought down their infamous CEO Roger Ailes after years of systematic sexual harassment.
Lead roles in the real story and the film include Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the journalist who first brought a lawsuit against Ailes; Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) one of Fox’s forefront anchor-women who came forward as a victim, strengthening the case; and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) a symbolic character representative of the many aspirational Fox women who were harassed by Ailes.
John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes in a chilling performance of a classic predator – hot and cold, kind and cruel, his inconsistency enabling him to prey on his victims.
As well as such a convincing performance of sexual predation from Lithgow, the stand-out brilliance of this film is in just how difficult it was to watch. In particular, the scene in which Kayla finds a way into Ailes’ office to try to persuade him to promote her, only to be forced to slowly push up her skirt for him as he takes ragged breaths, had me half covering my eyes.
I didn’t want to see, but I had to. Ailes’ rasped words “you have a great body Kayla” have haunted my mind ever since.
It’s also the smaller details that build up such an overwhelming experience of institutionalised harassment and misogyny in this film. Granted, the scenes of outright violation appear at the forefront, but they are reinforced strongly by the portrayal of Fox women peppered throughout.
They can only be described as Stepford Wives, but instead of their masters clearly being the men, the lines are blurred as to who is culpable for their extreme gender stereotyping.
As the accusations against Roger come out, there are scenes of their women journalists chatting incessantly on the phone to interviewers defending him and expressing the extent to which he empowers them – all the while signalling to assistants to find them a dress which is shorter, tighter and with better cleavage.
As the issue hots up, so do their heels, stepping into taller and taller shoes despite their feet being covered in bloody plasters. Women in the newsroom hand out skin-tight ‘Team Roger’ shirts and the make-up artists gossip amusingly about women who come out of his office wiping their mouths.
By the end of the film, you don’t come out feeling triumphant that they won – more just cynical, confused, and slightly afraid.
A salient observation is that, of course, the very news outlet these women work for is a huge driving force for the kind of world where this type of abuse is acceptable.
Other critics have condemned the sympathetic portrayal these women get, brushing over their own damaging real-life beliefs and their double standards – fighting for (some of) the rights of women but not other oppressed peoples.
However, I would argue that none of the women in the film are really likeable and are not meant to be. One can simultaneously recognise the badness they put into the world and recognise their right to work without being harassed.
Perhaps a more worrying observation is the implied message this film (and the real story) says about other women facing this abuse.
Whilst a remarkable story, the sad reality is that these women who receive only a modicum of justice are overwhelmingly white, blonde, rich and stereotypically beautiful. As Megyn Kelly’s husband says to her in the film: “you are the establishment”.
These are the women who are at the top of society and they are almost outnumbered and outgunned. If these women only just achieve justice, what does that imply about the rest of us?
Bombshell succeeds in dropping that bomb and is a must-watch for the new year, though not a pleasant one.
Image courtesy of Bron Films, with thanks.