Monday, January 20, 2020

Bombshell – telling the story of Ailes at Fox reveals Trump’s ticking timebomb

Bombshell a sick, telling a story that should never have had to be told. It’s about abuses of power, about chains of command that can keep awful secrets hushed up and not spoken about even though hundreds of people have more than a clue about what is going on. In one sense, it’s a universal story; in another, its awful essence is that it is based on a US television news channel that was meant to be reporting wrong-doing and exposing perpetrators rather than covering up its own sin.

When presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was forced out of Fox News, she sued the chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) claiming sexual harassment. Ailes had built the conservative-leaning network up into a huge profit centre of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Even before the film studio video idents are played, a screenful of text reminds Bombshell audiences that the real-life story has been dramatized. A younger composite character (Kayla Pospisil played by Margot Robbie) is used to challenge one of the older protagonists, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) about the cost to others of her years of silence about Ailes behaviour. I still can’t decide whether a silent scene with the three principle women in a lift is brilliantly uncomfortable or excruciatingly poor.

Over on this side of the pond, these Fox News figures are not particularly well known and some commentators who know a lot more are reluctant to label Megyn Kelly as a hero. But director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph seem to attempt to redeem Theron’s character at the start of the film with footage of her challenging Trump over his attitude towards women at a Republican presidential candidate debate:

“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals … Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on the 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? And how do you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton – that you are part of the war on women?”

While I’m male and no expert, to me the film successfully portrays Ailes behaviour as unequivocally wrong, and conscientiously explores the complex emotional and financial reactions to Carlson’s accusations. Some women who had experience of Ailes’ harassment lie low while others stand square behind the sleazy second floor boss who had more than a penchant for female presenters’ legs, viewing his abuse as a transaction that had advanced their careers. Even Kelly’s producer, played by Rob Delaney, swings between supporting his female colleagues and self-interest about his own future if they dare to speak out.

Kidman depicts the main accuser as someone who does their homework and remains calm under pressure, even when other women are slow to speak to her lawyers and join her action. Theron demonstrates the hesitancy of her character’s need to weigh up the possible effect of speaking out on her career and reputation. Robbie manages the delicate balance of portraying someone who is young and ambitious yet vulnerable and trapped. Her interactions with a gay colleague played by Kate McKinnon add to the three-dimensional reading of the complex relationships and fears at play in this super-conservative workplace.

Bombshell takes a while to warm up and launch its attack. The opening sequences break the fourth wall and allow Kelly/Theron to address the cinema audience before reverting to more traditional storytelling, though inner monologues still periodically burst out. Shade is liberally thrown, with an element of guilt by association of which the average audience cannot judge its veracity.

Yet Bombshell turns into a powerful reminder that no single man – or in this case, two: Ailes and Bill O’Reilly both leave Fox under considerable clouds – can bring everyone in an organisation down with them when they fall. The inclusion of presidential candidate Trump in the tale is surely a nod to his own feet of clay and the possibility that he is not beyond being toppled over under the burden of past sins.

The film also reminds audiences that there is a cost to speaking out: being part of Ailes’ downfall has not been good for some of the women’s careers and earning potential. In choosing to depict complexity over an (even more) simplified narrative, Bombshell highlights moral dilemmas without mandating particular binary choices that everyone should have taken.

In a good world, there would never be a need to make another film like Bombshell. But in the meantime, this is just one drop in a cinematic ocean from a film industry that has a lot of stories of bullying, harassment and coercion littering its own back yard to expose and atone for.

No comments: