Before Weinstein and before Epstein and a myriad lesser-known sexual predators, there was Roger Ailes. The story of the CEO of Fox News and others like him, much discussed in the last few years as illustrations of how the ugly and mighty fall is now brilliantly illustrated in “Bombshell.” Jay Roach gives us the tremendously entertaining story of a watershed moment at Fox, predating the #Metoo movement, portraying the stance of a number of women, starting with Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) at the network. The haughty commentator, having reached in her early fifties, her “good-by” date limit, is no longer hunted but pushed back from her star show to far less rewarding time slots. For her, payback is to start the ball rolling to have the network head atone for years of the kind of direct or indirect harassment that makes so many women’s –and some men’s—professional life difficult, if not hell. The effort doesn’t necessarily go as planned: witness her efforts to have reticent others, such as the powerful Megyn Kelly, join forces. But Carlson’s actions will eventually attract others for a lawsuit that will bring down the awful Ailes (a superlative and unrecognizable John Lightgow.)
The resistance resides in decades of sweeping sexual harassment under the rug, sensibly enough as who wants to lose job (or the possibility of obtaining one), for not only the riff-raff and shy office girls but some at the top of their game as journalists, anchors, professionals in the best time slots, making huge money and headlines underscoring their travails (Megyn Kelly and her gone-superviral attack by Trump of “blood coming out of her whatever” may well be more remembered for this feud than her television career.)
“Bombshell” illustrates the uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding position of many of these women, showing them not only at the top of their career or even the slope leading down but also how they are broken by steps on casting couches as fillies roped in a field. We cringe at the treatment of one of these newbies trained as prey in the office of the top honcho, Ailes, fat and ugly and revolting in full hunting mode.
We may choose to believe that things have changed but herein lies the difficulty in this and other stories of slow progress toward fighting back and occasionally breaking a barrier (when Ailes is finally fired by his boss Murdoch, a major victory for the women at Fox is that they can wear pants to work instead of the mandatory tight dresses and killer heels.) The harassment may change shape but will remain for a long time. Sexual predators are still around, though they will tone down their moves. It has happened for years—decades. Powerful men preying on women, yes. But powerful women understanding the quid pro quo, who even when themselves powerful gave in, most of the time, if they wanted to remain where they were or get where they wanted to get. This is true of television networks as movie studios as in corporate executive rooms, true of women at the top of their game as of vulnerable younger prey, incapable of pushing back and unwilling to walk away.
Fox News was a prime hunting ground for Ailes, as was Miramax for Weinstein or a New York brownstone for Epstein. What was the drop that made that particular bucket overflow? The story is told with gusto in this terrific film, with great acting from all concerned. A special mention for Charlize Theron. She of multiple transformations (Who can forget “Monster”?) is so perfect as Megyn Kelly that we soon forget she’s not the actual anchor.
A number of the predators are dead or in prison. Others have faced trials and face more ahead. Many remain, including the one in the White House.