Before Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo, there was Fox News and the high-profile lawsuit filed by anchor Gretchen Carlson against chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes. Bombshell tells the story of the women who brought down the most powerful man in television.
Fox News is, and has always been, the embodiment of corporate and conservative America. Founded by mogul Rupert Murdoch, who handed the reins to Roger Ailes in 1996, Fox is the most profitable news brand in the US, a powerhouse of white men talking right-wing politics and women in short skirts and high heels who look like dolls. It was more than a shock when, on July 6 2016, Carlson filed a lawsuit against Ailes claiming sexual harassment, and even more than a shock, when other twenty-five women came forward, prompting Murdoch to decide that Ailes had to leave Fox.
Produced by Charlize Theron and directed by Jay Roach, from a script by Charles Randolph (award-winning writer of The Big Short), Bombshell opens a few hours before the 2015 Republican presidential candidates’ debate. We are introduced to the world of Fox by Megyn Kelly (Theron), one of the channel star anchors. Ailes (John Lithgow) rules Fox with his genius instinct for showbiz while surrounding himself with beautiful women who must sit behind clear desks (to expose their legs) and endure his jokes that “to get ahead, you gotta give a little head.”
During the debate, Megyn, one of the moderators, calls out Trump for his nasty comments on women: “You called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’ and ‘disgusting animals’” and “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” The feud draws national attention and Trump starts a Twitter campaign against Megyn, accusing her of “anger menstruating.”
In the meantime, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is not doing so well either. A Stanford graduate, past Miss America pageant winner and once network star of ‘Fox and Friends’, Gretchen is now demoted to an afternoon slot after she complained about her sexist male co-hosts. Carlson is often insulted by Ailes, as when she presents a “no make up” show and he shouts at her that no one wants to see a middle-aged woman sweating.
And then there is Kayla (Margot Robbie), a self-described “evangelical millennial” who grew up religiously watching Fox with her family. Ambitious and determined to get on air, Kayla gets the attention of Ailes’ assistant and procurer, and manages to end up alone with Ailes. Unfortunately, while discussing a potential promotion, Ailes tells Kayla to get up and do a spin for him – “It’s a visual medium,” he says – and then orders her to hike her skirt higher and higher, until her panties are visible.
But here Gretchen drops the bomb. She accuses Ailes of sexual harassment and sues him personally, to avoid having the entire company come back at her. The news is scandal at Fox but nothing will change unless other women come forward. Here lies the drama of the movie: will Megyn, who was herself harassed by Ailes years before, speak out? Will Kayla face the abuse she keeps enduring behind closed doors?
As the narrative unfolds, we realize that the answers to these questions are neither easy nor predictable. After all, Bombshell is about a world where transactions are the only understandable language and where women seem willing to anything (except sticking out for one another) to work for a conservative powerhouse that institutionalizes their harassment. Even though abused, Megyn and Gretchen have been silent for years, refusing to spare future victims in doing so. Megyn keeps repeating that she is “not a feminist” when men accuse her to be one, as though it were a crime. Jess, Kayla’s only friend in the office, tells her not to involve her when Kayla tries to talk about her harassment. And yet this is exactly what makes the movie so powerful, the fact that its three protagonists are ruthless, ambitious and yet multi-faceted, that the audience might easily consider them compromised (as many Americans considered the real-life Megyn and Gretchen to be), but, in the end, it acknowledges the abuse they went through and wants them to win their fight.
In Bombshell, just like in real life, sexism is an ever-present prejudice that doesn’t discriminate. It hits Gretchen, who is constantly called out for her good looks rather than for her brains, it hits Kayla, who walks in and out of Ailes’s office with panicked eyes, it hits most of the other women at Fox, who seem to be ready to support the channel nonetheless. Towards the end of the movie, Gretchen says that a lot of people, especially women, are skeptical of harassment until they experience it themselves, or know someone who has. Bombshell pushes us to acknowledge and accept that there is no point in talking about sexual harassment with a sense of anomaly, or exception. To quote once again Gretchen’s words: “I don’t care if you like me, only that you believe me.”