Director - Jay Roach
The first wave of post-MeToo films (and TV shows) has been rather hit-or-miss; the wounds are still too raw and lessons are still being learned. Bombshell, I am happy to report, is among the better ones.
It is the sort of movie that would’ve had a tough time getting green-lit even two years ago, but like the women it champions, it arrives, encouraged by the industry’s reception of similar stories. Spurred on by the success of films like The Wife, Apple’s streaming series The Morning Show, and The Loudest Voice, a show that dramatises the same events, Bombshell is a genuinely empowering story of resilience and retribution.
Unlike The Loudest Voice, Bombshell doesn’t really waste any time on dissecting former Fox News chief Roger Ailes’ skills as a journalist. He had none. It does, however, through scenes of shockingly understated power, highlight his failings as a human being. I was surprised by how well director Jay Roach juggled the many tones of the film. It is at once a companion piece to The Big Short — both movies have been written by Charles Randolph, and they’re both rather playful on occasion — and a searingly emotional rallying cry.
Randolph uses a similar gimmick to the one he experimented with in The Big Short with his director and co-writer, Adam McKay. On several occasions, to fill in certain gaps the viewer might have — either in their memory or understanding — Randolph’s screenplay has characters look directly into the camera and provide vital context. This happens quite often in the first act, when Nicole Kidman, who plays former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, devises a strategy with her lawyers to bring Ailes down.
Roach, who has made a surprisingly successful transition from a director of broad comedies such as Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers films to overtly political fare such as his trilogy of HBO movies, Recount, Game Change, and All the Way, makes no bones about the fact that he is aping McKay’s instantly recognisable aesthetic from The Big Short. To that end, he has replaced his usual cinematographer, Jim Denault, and hired the great Barry Ackroyd, whose handheld camera brings a sense of urgency to the story. Ackroyd’s signature move is shooting from a distance with long lenses, which allows the actors to perform without necessarily having a distracting camera mere inches from their face.
And for a film that relies as heavily on performances as Bombshell, this was a smart move. While most of the conversation will, understandably, revolve around the trio of central stars who drive the movie, let us first take a moment and appreciate the fine work John Lithgow has done as the despicable Roger Ailes. It isn’t at all like Russell Crowe’s performance in The Loudest Voice, but much quieter, more insidious, and ultimately, scarier.
One scene in particular is especially affecting, mostly because of how unexpectedly it sneaks up on you, despite the fact that you may have been expecting it. A young producer named Kayla, played by Margot Robbie, is summoned to Ailes’ office on the second floor of the Fox building in New York. She’s an eager young woman, who genuinely admires the brand of journalism Fox is known for, and dreams of one day anchoring a show on the network.
By now, we’ve already been informed that Ailes has a reputation for inappropriate behaviour towards women. Stories about his harassment have been whispered in the newsroom for years. So when Kayla comes knocking on his door, a vibrant smile on her face and with a short pitch already prepared, we’re expecting the worst. Perhaps the reason why this scene works so well is that, on some level, we’re dreading what is about to happen. Which is why when it does, and Ailes commands Kayla to lift up her dress for him, we’ve already accepted the inevitable and are too stunned to react, much like poor Kayla.
She’s a composite character, unlike Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, who in the film’s finest and most transformative performance is played by Charlize Theron. Kayla is meant to represent the scores of women that Ailes likely victimised, but remain voiceless even today.
Bombshell asks vital questions about power, consent, and the consequences of silence. The answers aren’t as simple as you might expect. For instance, even though everyone at the Fox newsroom was, in some manner or the other, was aware of Ailes’ behaviour, no one did or said anything to stop him, even though many of them were presumably in a position to do so.
The Fox newsroom, as shown in the film, was a toxic environment, where every single person was stripped of individuality, and was treated like an expendable commodity. It is only when one woman — I won’t reveal who, in case you aren’t familiar with the story — found that she no longer had anything to lose and took the fight to Ailes. In doing so, she stripped him of the power he’d had over her for so many years. Her bravery inspired others; I hope this film does the same.