When it comes to making cinema in the post-Me Too landscape, the last place you would think to start would be Fox News.
And probably the last person you would expect to direct it would be Jay Roach, director of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but here we are. And frankly, before I saw it, I had some serious doubts.
I mean, only some, to be fair, because that cast was good enough to get me to overlook any major questions I might have had. The story follows Fox News via the lens of iconic host Megyn Kelly (an impeccably dry Charlize Theoren) after Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) levels accusations of sexual harassment against president Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). It’s an odd, complex place from which to start looking into these problems, from a hotbed of famous misogyny, but somehow, just somehow, Bombshell makes it work.
Roach’s comedic background actually plays a big part in this, with the film’s inimitable slickness and sharp wit allowing for an incisiveness and unflinching look at the contradiction and hypocrisy upon which this real-life mess of abuse was allowed to thrive. Kidman and Theoron soar as the meta-narrators of their own stories, confident, competent, and unyielding in their charismatic on-screen on-screen presence, and Lithgow is sleazy without resorting to caricature as the vile Ailes.
But, of course, Bombshell has to deal with the reality of telling a story about misogyny against the backdrop of a network that was home to both general misogyny and outright misogynists. I think this is best achieved, given that our major female characters would balk at the idea of calling themselves feminists, via the looming shadow of Donald Trump in the background of this story: he’s introduced in this film via the rape that his ex-wife reported ruing their divorce, and his rise to power is woven into the backdrop against which Bombshell takes place. His ingratiation into popular media, his allure to ratings’ hounds, and the shift towards acceptance of his very existence in the legitimate political sphere are almost sidenotes, but they’re a vitally important tool in the way that Bombshell unfolds this tale of misogyny on a macro level.
And, on a micro level, it’s perhaps even more impactful. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, an up-and-coming young reporter who is harassed and assaulted by Ailes as she begins her ascent at Fox, and it’s here that the film lets go of some of its slickness and focuses instead on the raw, painful reality on what this abuse does to the people who handle it. All this really hinges on Robbie being able to sell this, and shit, she does just that – watching her endure this harassment, from the nervous, giggling attempts to evade through till the devastated acceptance of what has happened to her, is a painful and complex and unflinching thing, and Roach is wise to let go of the film’s taut, controlled exterior to allow this emotion to impact as hard as it needs to.
Bombshell is an ambitious feat, there’s no doubt about that. And I think it’s the unexpected choice of approach to this story that allows for an investigation of a culture of abuse on a more comprehensive level. Elevated by killer performances and a slick, witty style, it’s engaging, intently watchable, and isn’t afraid to deliver that sucker-punch of reality when it wants to. And that’s the last time I doubt an Austin Powers director.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting my work on sexual harassment and abuse by checking out my book on the subject, Rape Jokes. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via HighwayRadio.com)