New York, 2016, one year before the Harvey Weinstein case goes global. We’re on the eve of the Republican Party primaries in Cleveland, and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is due to be one of the moderators. She’s worried about Donald Trump’s sexism, but is not sure how hard she can go in. Her boss at Fox News Roger Ailes is a big fan. Then she gets a tip off. The Big Boss Rupert Murdoch has let it be known that Trump is fair game.
Megyn accosts Trump with a string of his past statements which he shrugs off with his usual water off a duck’s back arrogance. Ailes isn’t too bothered – the interview created controversy (read: higher viewing figures) which is what he’s interested in above all else. No one else is too concerned either. After interviews like this, no-one is going to vote for that sexist buffoon, are they?
There’s also a little sexism problem going on at Fox. Ailes believes that only a certain sort of woman should be a presenter. So, when Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) starts mouthing off about women’s rights on air and even – shock horror – appears one day without make up, he gets security to accompany out of the building for good, telling her that no-one wants to see her greasy face.
Kayla (Margot Robbie) is younger than Megyn and Gretchen, but just as ambitious. She’s wanted to be a tv presenter all her life, so when she gets the chance of a special visit to Ailes’s office, she’s up there in a flash, even if it means giving him a twirl and raising her dress so high that you can see her underwear.
Kayla bears her humiliation resolutely, not just because of her ambition, but because she really believes in Fox news. She was brought up by evangelical Christians and sees herself as being “an influencer in the Jesus space”. Despite being a bit conflicted by her closet lesbianism, she sees Fox, and her boss, as being forces for good – a counterweight to the dominant “liberal media”.
Some critics have attacked Bombshell because it lets Fox news off the hook, and doesn’t show how the constant stream of hatred spewed out by the channel helps normalize the institutionalized sexism that we are witnessing. This is true, and is a valid criticism of the film’s politics. And yet artistically, it is the conflicts endured by the reluctantly anti-sexist women that gives the film extra depth.
You rarely go for a job at Fox news because you fundamentally disagree with its politics. Well, one character does – a work colleague who has a brief fling with Kayla and has two Hillary posters in her kitchen. But she’s not there out of commitment but because she can’t find employment anywhere else. And she is isolated – most of the Fox workers in the film really believe in that shit. This is what makes their rebellion all the more important.
Carlson brings a case of sexual harassment against Ailes, although at first her lawyers warn her off. Ailes is a serial abuser, and these are not the first allegations that he has faced, but the corporation was always too big, and the victims too isolated for earlier prosecution attempts to have been successful. Who would risk their career and reputation by taking on such a monolithic machine?
Slowly, reluctantly, the different cases against Ailes come together. The knowledge that one person has stood out against injustice encourages others to come forward. And there is a victory of sorts. Murdoch takes the strategic decision that defending entitled sexists doesn’t sell much advertising space. But it is very clear that the old power relations stay very much in place.
Interestingly, the divisions in the workplace are not based on gender. The struggles are led by women, but Ailes’s lawyer is also female, and she comes down harder than anyone against his critics. When he is under threat, it is young women who hand out “Team Roger” T-Shirts. This may well be because they are in fear of their jobs, but we are not offered a simplistic vision of The Sisterhood rising simultaneously together as one. Reality is much more nuanced than this.
Bombshell tells a tale which needs to be told, and while we may wish for a better, more political, story, it does what it does very well. The acting is universally excellent, and there is something satisfying in seeing Malcolm McDowell, leader of the Droogs, the killer of Captain Kirk, as the evil Rupert Murdoch. This is despite the fact that McDowell reins in his malevolence and Murdoch is portrayed more as a canny compromiser than the man who bears a large responsibility for all this madness.
The comparisons with Donald Trump are muted but clear to see. As this all takes place in the run in to Trump’s election victory, he regularly appears on television screens at the back of the picture. Few direct comparisons are drawn, but it is clear that this institutional sexism is part of the world over which Trump now presides.
While the acting is great, the plot plods sometimes, often giving the film the feel of a tv movie, which just happens to star a horde of Oscar nominees. It is workmanlike rather than spectacular, the dialogue isn’t really inspiring, and there are just a few too many captions explaining to us who each character is supposed to be. But if you want a better film, go out and make it yourself.
One thing is missing, which it had to be, as the film is based on real events. It would have been great, just great, if within the heart of Murdoch’s empire a fighting trade union had sprung up, which threw the atomised individuals together in a generalised fight which led to a more permanent victory. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. But if we fight to improve reality, our reward could also be some even better films.