Audiences may think they understand how the women at Fox News ended the 20-year reign of Roger Ailes in 2016, but Lionsgate’s “Bombshell” shows that the situation was much more complex and nuanced than the headlines.
“I always want to get past the obvious,” says director Jay Roach. “I want to know what’s really going on. It always surprises us. And it affects all of us, in ways we might not realize.”
In the film, newscaster Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) puts the plot in gear by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes (John Lithgow), and Margot Robbie plays a composite character who deals with the situation. But the film centers on Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) as she fights her own battles with Ailes and watches the in-house maneuvers with shifting loyalties.
In the post-Harvey Weinstein/MeToo era, the 2016 implosion at Fox News now seems like it would have been inevitable. But in fact, it was a very different world three years ago and Carlson was the Little Engine That Could, says Roach.
“Before this, there had never been a takedown of such a powerful figure as Roger Ailes, a corporate media titan who had the power to squash anybody who opposed him. It’s important to remember, there was not a lot of support for Gretchen when she spoke up just a few years ago. She was more smeared than supported.”
The movie, scripted by Charles Randolph, deals with the harassment charges, but it explores the bigger picture of bullying — how bosses can set the tone in a workplace, and how co-workers can contribute to that bullying, or allow it to continue by remaining silent.
“Bombshell” is not a lecture about gender equality and it’s not a knee-jerk indictment of all men. It’s a study of interesting women in an extreme situation. It is also about being honorable, and, as the movie makes clear, that’s not always easy to do.
“When I approach a film, I always ask, ‘What’s the predicament?’ ” says Roach. “And with ‘Bombshell,’ the predicament is more interesting than you thought. You will understand there was a lot more going on with these women, and see how conflicted and layered the characters are.”
A montage early in the film shows Carlson’s co-workers commenting on air about her appearance. It’s mostly flattery and it seems mild, but it captures the world in which a woman is subtly reduced to her appearance. “We let the audience ease into it,” Roach says.
And when she decides to make a statement by appearing on-camera without makeup, Ailes scorns her: “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.”
Roach says, “That’s the kind of duress Roger forced on everybody. And one of the questions the movie asks: Why would people stand up and defend Roger?”
The movie makes clear that Ailes pitted one woman against another, making them fear that the other woman could take their job.
“That’s his dark genius,” says Roach, “manipulating them and making them think they should attack others. It’s classic Cult Rules, that people are required to talk about him, to get his approval, to look and behave the way he wants.”
Kelly was fighting for respect on a different front as she challenges Donald Trump during a 2016 presidential debate about the derogatory terms he had used in describing women. She paid a price for it — but she also paid a price for her silence during much of the harassment battles.
Roach says he wants “Bombshell” to “give men a chance to witness what it might be like to be a woman in that situation. We want it to be an empathy machine. These problems are ingrained and they’re pervasive. One movie won’t fix it, but maybe we can add to the conversation.”