Roach: Bombshell (2019)
Over the last couple of years, there has a been a sudden outpouring of films about key moments in the #MeToo movement. Now that assault has suddenly become a possibility in public discourse, there’s a scramble to make up for lost time by contemplating and considering the different forms of assault that have culminated with the crisis of the Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes era. For that reason, Jay Roach’s Bombshell also feels mediated through various other sources before it begins – most notably The Loudest Voice, which spans the entire period of Ailes’ tenure at Fox, including the now-iconic lawsuit that was brought against Ailes by Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, which is the main focus here. Like The Loudest Voice, Bombshell presents the Trump era as the climax of American assault culture, and the #MeToo movement as an anti-Trump movement first and foremost, since Fox News is here largely reduced to a mouthpiece for Trump, unlike The Loudest Voice, which tended to put more critical distance between Ailes and Trump, despite their affinities.
To that end, Bombshell paints a pretty terrifying picture of the immediate pre-Trump era, evoking a world where assault – and the right of men to assault without consequences – converges with a fanatical Trump fanbase. One of the first images in the film is Trump’s joke about Rosie O’Donnell, while some of the eeriest moments come when the female news anchors at Fox are subjected to random white men approaching them in public spaces, and simply threatening them with “Trump 2016.” This sets the scene for a workplace drama that works as a complement The Loudest Voice, with three great turns from Nicole Kidman, as Gretchen Carlson, Charlize Theron, as Megyn Kelly, and Margot Robbie as Kaya Pospisil, a composite character whose lesbian relationship with Jess Carr, played by Kate McKinnon, is part of a broader effort to change the audience’s mindset about the possibility of activism within the Fox News world, and the role of feminism in far-right professional environments.
Watching the film, I realised that the Fox News #MeToo movement seems to have gained less cache in popular culture, presumably because – as several characters remind these women – they should have known what to expect in a high-octane, testosterone-fuelled workplace of this kind. That very particular form of victim-blaming is one of the driving themes of the film, and one of the biggest disincentives for Carlson, in particular, to testify, since her lawyers double down on it to check whether she is resilient enough to go through with the backlash she’ll inevitably receive. To that end, Roach opts for an improbable tonality that is sometimes comic, and sometimes surreal, but that largely works to normalise and domesticate the Fox News workplace, reducing the sense that these women were simply walking into an assault-factory that they should have been wise enough to avoid. Instead, Bombshell captures the bind of both being assaulted in a workplace and still needing that workplace, or recognising the pull of its positive attributes – most acutely in the case of McKinnon’s character, who realises that remaining closeted, even throughout her relationship with Kaya, is perhaps worth it to advance her career as a tabloid journalist.
This willingness to contend with the very real reasons why women remain in abusive workplaces is one of the strengths of Bombshell, and offsets any reductive moralising about the three main characters – or any straightforward solidarity. For while all three characters have a common goal, they also comes from very different places in the organisation, and different levels of stature, meaning that we rarely see them in the same space or situation. Rather than combining to form a class action, their trajectories are largely separate, and have different outcomes, as Roach uses the space between them to evoke the difficulty of articulating assault, even or especially when multiple people in a single organisation are experiencing it. The more assault occurs, the more it is instiiutionally normalised, and so Bombshell takes its tone from the oddly pregnant silence that emerges between the three women when they happen to catch an elevator together at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Only in this transitory, transitional and picaresque space does it become possible – momentarily –to glimpse the full institutional sweep of assault, perhaps explaining why Roach seems to seek out a tonality that is similarly incomplete or improbable, trying to catch out assault when it hides in plain sight, rather than as a static or clearly visible entity.
For that reason, this picaresque approach works better here than it did in The Big Short, as Roach moves away from docudrama towards a more prosthetic and plastic form of mise-en-scene and direction, epitomised by the way Theron handles Kelly’s distinct enunciation. Even when Theron’s Kelly is off screen, she feels as if she is delivering a newscast, capturing the difficult of extricating private from professional space in this work environment, but also making it feel as if these three women can only come together in an artificial space, or a prosthetic space – a space that stands outside the reality-principle, and misogynist realism, of their workplace. Articulating that space is the project of Bombshell, as it was for The Loudest Voice, and in both cases the directors seem prescient that blank outrage at assault isn’t the right way to go about it, since nobody is quicker to voice their moral disapproval at assault than Ailes himself, and the Murdochs behind him. Instead, both the film and series form a kind of line of flight from the way in which assault has been turned into an object of moral critique by the people who perpetuate it, and the dignified tonalities they weaponise.
This similarity to The Loudest Voice really works in Bombshell’s favour, since it’s quite interesting, and uncanny, to see the same scenes play out here, almost word for word, as if the events in question were refracting kaleidoscopically through both texts. Since both texts are mobile and restless in their efforts to accommodate the victims of assault without containing them, the two texts also seem to accommodate each other, conceding a broader palimpsest of responses to the #MeToo moment rather than a monotextual, summative statement. Connie Britton’s depiction of Beth Ailes converges with Siena Miller’s depiction, rather than offering an “alternative”, evoking assault as a trauma that exists between the worlds of the texts, and that is by definition cautious of textual representations, given the way these representations have tended to elide or erase it in the past. And it’s that sense of assault as a paratextual experience that makes Bombshell feel timely, in its willingness to remain incomplete or emergent, and to leave space for future visions that might augment it – new information coming to light, the rhetorical basis and vision of the #MeToo moment.
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