One of these things is not like the others.
I don’t often go to R-rated movies. Usually, it is because they are too violent or scary and I am prone to nightmares. Bombshell, however, is R-rated due to language and sexual harassment, both real-life things with which I am acquainted.
Bombshell is based on the story of how Roger Ailes, then chairman and CEO of Fox News, was forced to step down after a lawsuit filed against him for sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, who had been a host on the network, unleashed similar claims from other women who worked with Ailes over a span of decades. Many of the characters portrayed in the movie are real people who worked at Fox News, although conversations and some other characters are fictionalized.
The movie employs archival clips of Fox News footage within the movie. It is stunning how much Nicole Kidman, as Gretchen Carlson, and Charlize Theron, as Megyn Kelly, sound like the women they portray. They also resemble them physically, but, as anyone familiar with Fox News knows, most of the women on-air at the network are young, blond, and wearing skirts, so that viewers can see their legs. Ailes’s emphasis on women’s looks was often the first shot in his sexual harassment campaign. It appears that he went on to use his control over these women’s careers as leverage to get them to engage with him sexually.
John Lithgow, who portrays Ailes, is transformed to look like him. As a woman watching the film, I was repulsed by his creepiness and his manipulative behavior. Lithgow makes the real threat Ailes posed to women unmistakeable, while also showing him to be perplexed about how his behavior was wrong. While the incidents in the film took place before the #MeToo movement became well-known, we have often seen this pattern when powerful men are forced to accept responsibility for their harassing behavior. They seem to feel that they are entitled to demand sexual favors from women and that these women are freely choosing to engage with them, rather than seeing how they are using their positions of power to manipulate women who are afraid of losing their careers. In the film, we see how Gretchen Carlson was demoted and, finally, fired from Fox News when she rejected Ailes’s advances.
The film also portrays the culture at Fox News as one of misogyny. Many of the other men at the network are shown to be dismissive of women. Others, in the aftermath of Ailes’s departure, also are forced to resign due to covering up for Ailes or for their own harassment of women on their staffs.
Some of the women around Ailes come to his defense. Some, such as Ailes’s wife, don’t want to believe he is capable of such despicable behavior. Some may have been motivated by self-interest, not wanting to see their own careers derailed by opposing their powerful boss.
Because the women who worked at Fox News all had to sign non-disclosure agreements and binding arbitration, we may never know the full story of what happened to them. Gretchen Carlson was only able to file suit against Roger Ailes because a state law in New Jersey allowed her to sue Ailes personally, rather than having to sue Fox News, which was impossible due to the arbitration clause. She is currently fighting to be released from the non-disclosure agreement so that she can publicly tell the specifics of what happened to her.
There is an unknown number of women who had their lives and careers damaged by Roger Ailes. Bombshell tells part of that story, although other parts had to be fictionalized. Perhaps someday, the non-disclosure agreements will be overturned so that all these women can tell the truth about what they experienced.
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