Bombshell

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bombshell
"Bombshell is a finely crafted film which benefits from one of the best acting ensembles of the year."

There was one thing Roger Ailes knew that made him a brilliant network executive: that even when delivering news, it's the performance that matters.

Bombshell is a film that's all about performance. Indeed, it has secured several major awards nominations for its performers, among them Charlize Theron, who plays Megyn Kelly. We see her in the film's opening scene, slipping into the back of a cab, her face covered by that distinctive make-up that marks out most of the FOX network's women. Its uncanny valley plasticity gives her the look of a woman whom men might fail to recognise as human, but there's a lot going on behind the mask.

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In approaching this film, which deals with the allegations of sexual harassment made against Ailes by a number of women working at FOX, it should be noted that none of their claims was ever proven in a court of law (though out-of-court settlements were reportedly made), so it could me dismissed as unsavoury speculation. Given the weight of evidence brought against him, however, it seems not unreasonable to speak ill of the dead. Based on the accounts of his accusers yet allowing for a little bit of artistic licence (which also helps to obscure the identity of accusers never publicly named), Jay Roach's film takes Ailes' guilt as a given and focuses on two adjacent areas: the distinctive culture of the network and the practical and psychological factors that enable some of those who engage in workplace harassment to get away with it for decades.

Theron is riveting as the presenter who, at the top of her game, is derailed by misogynist attacks by Donald Trump which few people then expected him to get away with. Though this experience doesn't form part of the primary narrative, it's fundamental to the set-up because it demonstrates the sudden sense of dislocation experienced by a woman who thought she had power but suddenly realises its fragility in the face of widespread mockery and even hatred based on her gender. At pains to point out that she's not a feminist - a term almost as loathsome as socialist as far as her colleagues are concerned - she has no established set of tools with which to respond to such a discovery. It clearly touches on older, long-buried experiences, and it prompts her to start looking out for younger female presenters like would-be weather girl Kayla (Margot Robbie).

A newsroom is an environment in which there are always a lot of things happening at once and Roach's film captures this very effectively as we move back and forth between different threads of the complex developing story. Whilst Kelly is dealing with her sudden unpopularity, another unhappy employee, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is talking to lawyers about the possibility of suing Ailes for suggesting that she could only make progress in her career by sleeping with him, and Ailes is making moves on Kayla. This is a classic Robbie role, giving her the opportunity to alienate many viewers upfront by passionately espousing a love of FOX and of the traditional values of the US religious right, yet it's precisely those values that make Kayla so vulnerable when the world doesn't work as she expected it to, and watching her compromise herself is heartbreaking.

Roach strikes a fine balance here between the titillation necessary to explain how the women are being used - in terms of how they're taught to present their bodies on camera as well as in Ailes' office - and stressing the ugliness of it all. Jon Lithgow is excellent as Ailes, capturing different facets of a complex personality and showing us why his staff continue to believe in him despite the way he treats them. The ease with which Ailes manipulates Kayla, who has been taught all her life to respect the authority of older men, emphasises that sexual harassment isn't simply a matter of physical aggression or direct threats to job security. His power stems in part from the way that he makes her feel complicit in his crimes. As we watch her over time, she becomes a Lolita-like figure, her confidence gradually ebbing away, the life draining out of her eyes.

There is no critique here on FOX itself nor of the values it promotes (though several characters express concern about Trump, whom Ailes would go on to work for after the events depicted here). Kayla's friendship with a secretly lesbian colleague emphasises the difference between the political polarisation we see onscreen and the more nuanced behaviours of real human beings. Setting the larger political drama aside makes it easier to observe that abusive cultures and predatory behaviour can develop anywhere. Roach's bright colour palette and Barry Ackroyd's glossy cinematography maintain the image of a lively, upbeat workplace quite at odds with the depression lurking behind those cosmetic masks.

Though it occasionally misses a beat or overreaches itself with snappy little asides, Bombshell is a finely crafted film which benefits from one of the best acting ensembles of the year. It tells its story well but never forgets that viewers want style as much as substance.

Reviewed on: 31 Dec 2019
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A group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.

Director: Jay Roach

Writer: Charles Randolph

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell

Year: 2019

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US, Canada

Festivals:

Palm Springs 2020

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