It has been four months since Jay Roach’s Bombshell first hit the silver screen. Although the buzz surrounding its release faded after a disappointing showing at the 2020 Oscars, enduring discussions around sexual misconduct, workplace safety, and the significance of the #MeToo Movement have not allowed me to move on just yet. While many films can be watched, enjoyed in the moment, and tucked away, Bombshell has served both as a window into the complicated politics of speaking up against sexual harassment and assault, and as a testament to the ongoing fight left to lead.
Roach, widely known for comedies including the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, has also expressed his share of political commentary over the years, through both satire and drama. His directorial credits include three HBO political dramas, Recount (2008), Game Change (2012), and All the Way (2016). While many of his politically-focused films retrospectively examine an event or period in American history, Roach took up the project of Bombshell in the presence of a fiery social backdrop, featuring ongoing coverage of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal, the birth and momentum of the #MeToo Movement, and a rising tally of high-profile individuals tied to cases of sexual harassment and assault. The film’s staying power stems from its contribution to a critical dialogue around such issues, and its strong visual and emotional depictions of a true story.
For those who haven’t seen the film, it is based on the sexual harassment allegations brought against former Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes, by over 20 female employees. We follow the experiences of three women: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and the fictional Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) whose character is meant to embody a collection of accounts reported by different Fox News staffers. While every true story told by Hollywood takes creative liberties in order to fit within a standard framework, this subject intrinsically provided many of these elements: heroic action by those not well-suited to the task, a corrupt and powerful villain, an encouraging ending. An interesting juxtaposition to this backdrop comes from the three lead characters, who are ideologically and characteristically distant from your typical Hollywood heroine. But the way they navigate their performances – Theron’s unflinching confidence in the way she moves, Kidman’s subtle but icy remarks, Robbie’s infectious enthusiasm and dynamic body language – bring a multitude of angles to the substance of their unfortunate shared experience. We witness the various ways sexual harassment can manifest in the workplace, unchecked until it becomes commonplace, and come to understand the different methods that each woman uses to cope and, later, fight back.
Yet the film’s true value comes not from the way it handles its storytelling, but from the role it assumes as a tool for a conversation that is much larger than the particular story it tells. Bombshell is a great example of the reciprocal relationship between film and society in action – the film simultaneously comes from and enhances the discussion surrounding an important cultural phenomenon. This exchange is something that should occur in times of great ethical failure – the times when art should be enlisted to further inform and mobilize the public. A film like Bombshell presents both a challenge and an opportunity: the challenge to confront the institutions and individuals that rob women of their safety and humanity in the workplace, and the opportunity to inspire reform, beginning with vocalizing the desire for change.
The film has already had an important effect in the public sphere. In January, Megyn Kelly responded directly to the film on YouTube through a thoughtful 30-minute sit-down discussion with Juliet Huddy, Rudi Bakhtiar, Julie Zann, and Doug Brunt (Kelly’s husband). While they all agreed that the film took certain liberties and strayed occasionally from a consistent message, they supported it as a realistic portrayal of sexual harassment in the workplace – one that allows viewers to engage intimately with various instances of harassment and its institutional reinforcement. While the gravity of the subject can only be fully known through experience, the film commences a process of understanding, by bringing us into the room with Ailes’ victims to share in some part of their struggle.
Kelly’s response grounded the film back in reality, drawing out the strengths of the legacy it should bear during such a pivotal cultural time. Any film can make a statement, but the ability to produce a dialogue is far more powerful – perhaps powerful enough to challenge such corrupt structures as depicted in a film like Bombshell and those experienced far beyond it in scenarios left unexposed.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the following FOLCS Events:
HBO Films, Recount: A Screening and Conversation featuring lawyer, Ron Klain, political scientist, Benjamin Ginsberg, and professor, Abner S. Greene.
The Hunting Ground: Screening and Conversation featuring director, Kirby Dick, and activist, Sophie Karasek.
Seeing Allred: Screening and Conversation featuring lawyer, Gloria Allred, director, Sophie Sartain, and producer Marta Kauffman.