The rise and decline of powerful Fox News founder and chairperson Roger Ailes was laid out in sordid detail in the television series The Loudest Voice. While the seven-episode show focused on Ailes, played brilliantly by Russel Crowe, Jay Roach’s Bombshell turns its attention on the women Ailes was accused of having sexually harassed and abused over his long reign at Fox. The sly title refers to the kind of female anchor that Ailes (John Lithgow) encourages Fox News to put on air: blonde, svelte and skirt-wearing, with Miss America looks.
Charles Randolph’s screenplay packs into 108 crisp minutes the sexist work culture at Fox News and the fightback by the female employees, led by Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson (some of the characters are based on actual women and others are composites). Gretchen’s fight against Ailes’s predatory behaviour runs parallel to the attempts of young journalist Kayla (Margot Robbie) to find her feet. In a third, related strand that underscores the screenplay’s ambitions to connect Alies’s actions to a wider toxic climate, Fox News star anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) struggles to swat away misogynistic and deeply personal attacks from Presidential candidate Donald Trump and his online beehive.
The movie is at its most convincing as an expose of a newsroom culture that reeks of male entitlement and allows women to progress only at great personal cost. Kayla, played beautifully by Robbie, epitomises the kind of young and ambitious reporter that Gretchen or Megan might have once been – eager to move up in the ranks, too raw to fully comprehend Ailes’s ways, and finally too frightened to refuse his demands. Theron, who is near unrecognisable as Kelly, and Kidman, are equally compelling, and this trinity of talent, backed by a strong supporting cast (including Kate McKinnon as Kayla’s girlfriend), give Bombshell its impact.
The political backdrop and boardroom manouvering might escape non-American viewers who aren’t au courant with the connections between Fox News and Trump’s campaign or the tensions between Ailes and Fox News’s owners, the Murdochs. Bombshell works best when it punctures the professional climate at Fox News that enabled Ailes and emboldened some of his employees to similarly harass other women (“Fish rots from the head,” as one character observes). The attempt to draw larger connections between the television network and the current state of America is strained and less convincing. The sexualisation of women in broadcasting predates and will outlive Trump, and for Indian viewers, the movie’s strength lies in its unsentimental and cliche-free depiction of female solidarity. This war is waged with cool intelligence, clever strategising, and a clear-eyed view of what is at stake and what needs to be done.