Based On A Real Scandal
Set largely during the early days of the election campaign that would lead to the Trump presidency, we are introduced to four key individuals working at Fox News. At the top is Roger Ailes [Lithgow], the man who built the network from the ground up and through his broadcasts, actively shaped how many Americans see the world. In his older age he is more frail but he controls his company with an iron fist, maintaining a clear direction over everything that is shown on his network. One of Fox’s lead anchors, Megyn Kelly [Theron] is a veteran broadcaster and acts as the introductory individual to this world, highlighting what makes Fox unique. We are then introduced to Gretchen Carlson [Kidman], another veteran anchor who has fallen out of favour with Ailes and been bumped to an unenviable afternoon slot and has contracted lawyers to start a sexual harassment case to counter the toxic environment she is expected to work in. Finally we have Kayla Pospisil [Robbie], a young up-and-coming researcher who leaves Carlson’s team to try and get on a superior career path but in doing so finds herself in Ailes’ sights.
Adopting the quirky style utilised by Adam McKay for features such as Big Short and Vice, Bombshell felt like it had the potential to be a whip-smart, irreverent yet sobering look at a horrific series of events through the prism of comedy. Regrettably, this overall approach is dropped fairly early on and what starts off as satirical comedy quickly veers to project a rather thin note of uplifting optimism. In a way, I was reminded of The King’s Speech which closes with nationwide celebratory scenes despite heralding the start of the worst conflict of the twentieth century. Ultimately, because this film can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to be, we end up with lacklustre pacing, a tonally mixed bag and central characters side-lined for (in story) months at a time.
In terms of the events being depicted, the reality is blisteringly tragic. In a time of such social and political division, there will be those who argue that it is incredibly hard to sympathise with those who work at Fox News but Bombshell does a great job of humanising the issue, raising it above politics and reminding the audience that this is an affliction that happens in all types of working environments; essentially challenging victim blaming just because the individuals affected work for the right wing press. Nowhere is this more aptly addressed than Kate McKinnon’s character: a staffer who works on Bill O’Reilly’s team who is in fact a Democrat voting lesbian. She acts as both counsel to Kayla but also serves as a reminder that for some individuals this is just a job and one that doesn’t reflect their actual worldviews, it also illustrates the blot on people’s curriculum vitae that traps them in the organisation because of their affiliation and association. Having said that, regardless of the subject matter and the implication of the very title, Bombshell never really crashes down with force, so the final result feels a surprisingly touch light with a handful of powerful, shocking scenes.
If there was a reason to watch this film (other than the importance of the issue presented), it would be the central performances, which are fantastic. The triumvirate combination of two specific examples and one amalgam is a nice touch, allowing the writers to draw audiences in with the authentic scandal while affording them the flexibility of several other similar stories in one followable thread. Backing this up is a grand, sprawling cast which doubles as a conveyer belt of notable cameos who all add their own touch and signature to this piece; with examples ranging from Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch.
As I said in my Just Mercy review, we are seeing a changing landscape in the types of stories that are getting mainstream attention and promotion. While this will by no means be the last movie to address the subject of sexual harassment, it is a tale told in the eye of the storm – which is entirely absorbing and engaging at the time but cannot figure out a conclusion because society hasn’t reached one yet. And while that’s fine for certain releases (Margin Call’s heralding the pending fiscal crisis for example) it doesn’t seem to establish this tone or agenda from the start, setting itself up as an explanatory exposé but never really delivering, which is a damn shame.
17 January 2020
The Scene To Look Out For:
No matter how many characters defend him, the film offers several examples of Ailes being an absolute monster. One remarkably cruel outburst, as he loads up multiple doughnuts from a crafts services table, takes place immediately after Carlson has done a piece on raising awareness of the over-sexualisation of women and opting to not wear makeup for the entire segment. Ailes’ bitter rant comes to a head when he storms off crying out, “no one wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweating through menopause.”
While Kayla is the composite character, I’m hesitant to use the word fictional. Her transitional journey from keen and hungry for success to filled with regret and shame is one that an uncomfortable amount of audience members may be able to relate to or identify with. Nothing is ever explicitly shown but her reactions alone sell the absolutely appalling dilemma she finds herself in. Her initial scene with Ailes is presented without music, little background noise and probing camera angles making the entire experience remarkably uncomfortable. This is underlined when Kayla is summoned back to his office, unsure of what to expect. En route she briefly meets Megyn and Gretchen (who become slowly aware of what is going on) and the entire segment is accompanied by a tense yet playful rhythm that wonderfully enhances the practically dialogue-free scene.
“News is like a ship, you take your hands off the wheel and it pulls hard to the left”
In A Few Words:
“A noble effort but ultimately too drifting in its execution to be the hard-hitting revelatory drama it aspires to be”