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‘Bombshell’ movie review: The claustrophobia of workplace toxicity

‘Bombshell’: In the limited terrain that the film explores, it does an exemplary job, mostly owing to its actors

‘Bombshell’: In the limited terrain that the film explores, it does an exemplary job, mostly owing to its actors   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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Memorable acting, empathy, brisk pace and topicality work in favour of this movie, but it cannot afford the complexity of hindsight

In a television newsroom — with an obsession with ratings, high-pressure turnovers and demanding deadlines — toxic work culture is inevitable. “TV is a visual medium,” is an almost daily — if not an hourly — reminder by screeching editors to anyone who may dare to prioritise substance over imagery. When the sleazy and powerful CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who was fired for sexual harassment in 2016, repeatedly uses the same line in Bombshell in the guise of boosting business (“viewers want more legs”), it cuts deep. The atmosphere of internalised sexism, vanity and ‘it is what it is’ attitude, not only forms a fertile ground for sexual harassment but also sets a precedent for silence, under the garb of ‘accepted work culture’. Bombshell aptly demonstrates how these micro-aggressions are not just alarm bells but problems in themselves.

Beginning in a sprightly tone and periodically breaking the fourth wall, the film is told through the perspective of the women, mainly celebrity anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Miss America-turned-anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and a fictional young, self-proclaimed evangelical millennial Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). While Kelly and Carlson are both powerful yet problematic, Pospisil is shown as the classic ‘victim’, shouldering the film’s most unflinching scene of sexual abuse. Even though Pospisil rebukes Kelly for keeping silent all these years and contributing to the normalisation of workplace sexual abuse, the film doesn’t pit ‘old’ feminism against ‘new’. It maintains a tone of solidarity, bringing out the sheer helplessness that governs even someone as powerful and ambitious as Kelly.

Bombshell
  • Director: Jay Roach
  • Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney
  • Storyline: After television anchor, Gretchen Carlson accuses CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, it is upon other women at the network to bring him down

In American broadcast universe, Kelly has been a contentious presence, known for her white Santa remarks and taking on Donald Trump, but the film is unable to bring out her complexity. The focus boils down to ‘will she or won’t she turn against Ailes’ and simplifies her journey towards arriving at that position. “I’m either damned for doing it or damned for not doing it sooner,” she says, which is emblematic of several powerful women who faced a similar dilemma during the #MeToo movement in 2017. The film is understanding of that, and doesn’t vilify those women who arrived at their rebellion much later than the others. It successfully recreates a claustrophobic atmosphere that bred helplessness right before the #MeToo movement hit America, and the subsequent jubilation of some white women who managed to liberate themselves at Fox News.

But the film leaves a lot to be desired, particularly when it begins to unravel the power, dichotomy and hypocrisy of Fox News in supporting Donald Trump. There are systemic sexism and deep-rooted conservatism in the television channel, yet the film doesn’t fully articulate the complexities of the enterprise, those who have been complicit and the role of the Murdochs. In the end credits, the film informs us that Ailes’ severance package was much higher than the monetary compensation given to all the women combined. But when it comes to depicting that in the narrative itself, the film gives an easy way out to Rupert Murdoch, almost as if the makers were afraid of backlash from the tycoon. The messaging of the film, thus, filters down to a simple and known one, while Fox News is a much more devious entity, where business meets power meets political conservatism meets misogyny. Throw in a Trump, and there’s a lot more food for thought.

But in the limited terrain that the film explores, it does an exemplary job, mostly owing to its actors. Kidman, although sidelined eventually, is most memorable in a scene sans make-up, while Theron slips in effortlessly into the body language and tone of Kelly. Your heart goes out to a fragile Robbie, and Lithgow earns all the rebuke and hatred, despite the rather comical prosthetic double-chin. Kate Mckinnon, as Robbie’s lesbian friend, is merely a yardstick for discrimination and is mostly underutilised.

For the current times to adequately percolate into the arts, it often takes a long time, even decade sometimes. Bombshell couldn’t afford the luxury of hindsight, yet it isn’t confused about the present. It takes a stand with empathy. But it understandably does fall short of the complexity that time brings, when you look back and start connecting more dots, once the water has passed under the bridge.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 1:01:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/reviews/bombshell-movie-review-the-claustrophobia-of-workplace-toxicity/article30469243.ece

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