In July 2016 Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harrassment lawsuit against CEO Roger Ailes, setting off a chain of accusations and denials that rocked the television network. The lead-up and repercussions of Carlson’s lawsuit are now the subject of a new feature drama directed by Jay Roach: Bombshell.
A sexual harrassment suit hardly sounds like most people’s idea of an entertaining drama – particularly one that never sees the inside of a courtroom. There are no impassioned speeches to juries or judges, no signature moments of characters insisting they take a stand. Truth be told, the two most prominent women in the film – Carlson and fellow anchor Megyn Kelly – do not even particularly like each other. Despite this challenge, Bombshell is powerful, dramatic, and absolutely rivetting.
The film is directed by Jay Roach. Despite being best known for directing the three Austin Powers spy comedies from 1997 to 2002, he has since established a strong secondary line in true-to-life political dramas. His 2008 made-for-television film Recount explored the uncertain results of the 2000 Presidential election, while his 2012 follow-up Game Change tracked the brief and unlikely career of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as a Vice-Presidential candidate. Bombshell follows cleanly in the path of these earlier works. Roach handles the adaptation of real people and situations with integrity, but also with a strong sense of the absurd. He makes Bombshell not only dramatic but also genuinely entertaining.
These films are a godsend for actors, who are given the benefit of real people to impersonate and prosthetic make-up to visually transform themselves into their characters. This is particularly true for Charlize Theron as Kelly and John Lithgow as Ailes: both are strikingly authentic in appearance, and leverage their changed looks to vanish into their roles. Even Malcolm McDowell, appearing briefly as Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, manages to sink into some suprisingly great prosthetics to play the notorious media tycoon. Performances by Nicole Kidman as Carlson and Margot Robbie as aspiring journalist Kayla Pospisil are perhaps more conventional, but still represent top-notch work by both actors. The Charles Randolph screenplay emphasises character and dialogue, putting pressure on the entire cast to excel – and excel they do. This is one of the best-performed American films of the year.
More importantly, the film’s focus is locked on its women. Some choose to fight. Some choose to remain silent. Others choose to actively support Ailes, since he ostensibly helped so many of their careers despite – or perhaps because – of his harrassment. Few of these women feel judged by the film, but instead are treated with an important degree of respect. Best of all, the film offers an exploration of the terrible effect of sexual harassment: how it feels, the feelings of rage versus those of shame, and the ongoing after-effects and damage that is created. Spun out of the much-discussed “Me Too” movement, the film feels important and timely without ever feeling didactic or condescending.
The film’s length and scope does compromise it slightly. At only 108 minutes and with a broad spread of characters, accusations, and counter-claims, it understandable struggles to do much beyond showcase the events and reflect their effects on the key players. In a longer set-up, such as a limited series or the like, there might have been room to explore the entire context and significance of events as they happened. As it stands Bombshell does, from time to time, wind up being necessarily curt and superficial. It is essentially the pay-off for making the film have the sharp pace and entertaining style it has. Whether it is a good thing or bad is effectively up to the viewer. Accepting Roach and Randolph’s chosen direction for what it is, Bombshell is top-notch stuff.