By John H. Foote
As a man, I will never know what it is to be sexually harassed.
I suppose there is a slim chance of being so harassed by a woman or a man, but so far it has not happened and I doubt it will. My wife knew what it was to be harassed, and handled it beautifully, terrifying the poor guy into likely never putting his hands on anyone ever again. And my oldest daughter knows though hers was more stalking than harassment, though there is no question in my mind, looking back on it he meant her harm. She was a seventeen-year-old high school girl working in a local bakery when she began telling us about this older guy (32) who paid her a lot of attention, always asking for her last name, asking her out. When he was spotted in the high school library going through recent yearbooks to find her last name, my daughter had a meltdown and we were called to the Principal. Never had my seventeen-year-old looked so small and frightened as she did that day. The police had escorted this guy off the property, he was told in no uncertain terms not to return and they came to see my wife and me that night. One of the officers was very helpful, the other kind of doubted the whole thing. That was until they ran his license plates, which my girl had cleverly recorded. They checked his plate, came back into the house and were suddenly all business, this was serious.
He had done this sort of thing before and been warned. They paid him a visit that night about one in the morning just to rattle him, telling him to stay out of the bakery, stay away from my daughter, that if he approached her again in any way they would arrest him. The very next day my daughter got a panicked call from one of her friends talking about this older good looking guy in the gym trying to find out who she was. Terrified she called me and I called the police and he was picked up and thrown in jail, charged with criminal harassment. Back and forth we went to court, all the while finding evidence at home of my daughter’s terror, knives hidden everywhere. In the end, my wife gave a victim impact speech that silenced the courtroom and caused the judge to go very hard on this guy. He was given seven months on the spot and told if he were to be caught breathing the same air as my daughter he would go to jail for three years.
When we packed my daughter off to university at the end of that summer, I received a call from the police stating they wanted to give her police protection for a few months while she was at Laurier, but I was not to tell her. So acute was her radar, I told them she would make them the first day. Given permission to tell her, she had already spotted the brown undercover car, one male police office, one female, trailing her every move. They were concerned he would not stop, but he did and has never bothered her again.
Watching the fear in her, coupled with humiliation though she had done nothing and then the shame (questioning herself) second-guessing whether she had done something was agonizing. Knowing she feared for her life wounded my wife and I and gave us first-hand experience in what exactly harassment is like, and how it can impact life.
About a year before Harvey Weinstein was brought down as the sexual predator he had been for years, assaulting, harassing and raping young starlets, it was revealed the head of Fox News, Roger Aisles (John Lithgow) was doing the same thing and had been for years. When he crosses a line yet again with Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) she cannot sue the network, bound by her non-disclosure contract, but she can sue him personally. That is exactly what she does, hoping other women fall in behind her.
During this time newswoman and star of the News network Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is also struggling with harassment, and being attacked for her questioning of Presidential candidate Donald Trump. When she queries the candidate about his comments and treatment of women, Fox pulls back support for her, lessens her time on the air, keep her away from Trump. Angry and seeking a way to expose Aisles she falls in with Carlson to expose the man, a good friend of Trump.
A striking young woman, a recent hire loves the Fox network and everything it stands for. Her beauty, body and genuine sex appeal make Kayla (Margot Robbie) a natural to soon be on the air, but also a target for the predator Aisles. She befriends a young closeted lesbian, portrayed with a jolt of energy by Kate McKinnon, and they become fast friends, falling into bed together, though Kayla makes clear she is not gay. When Kayla meets with AIsles to promote herself, he humiliates her, asking her to raise her skirt ever higher until finally, he sees her panties. He will complete the harassment, forcing her to have sex with him. Disgusted she goes to her friend, who passes on any involvement, telling her to let it go, there is no way to win. But Kayla, disgusted with Aisles, herself and having lost all regard for Fox News, joins forces with Carlson and Kelly, and they bring down AIsles, swiftly, completely.
The film is told with a brisk speed, a light tone which juxtaposes the dark content, but involves the audience more than if they were doing a straight dark expose. Jay Roach, best known for his work on HBO movies Recount (2008) and the superb Sarah Palin film Game Change (2012), brings a bouncy, jaunty feel to the film, which is perfect.
The performances are nothing short of astonishing, beginning with Theron as Kelly. Just enough makeup transforms the actress into the spitting image of Kelly, and Theron handles the rest. She captures her essence in every way, the voice and speech patterns, movements, body language, the manner in which she moves her arms, everything transforms the actress into a living breathing incarnation of Megan Kelly. This is no small feat because the newswoman is so familiar to today’s audiences, so well known. It could have gone horribly wrong, but instead will land Theron an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It has been a while since Theron was heard from in the Oscar race, sixteen years since she won Best Actress for her astounding performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). She was nominated again in 2005 for her work in North Country, fighting for women’s rights in a plant where females are under constant sexual harassment from the makes workers. Theron deserved to be nominated for the action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) but did not make the cut, but I cannot see how they can ignore her this year. The transformation into Megan Kelly is remarkable, but she captures that which is most challenging the intelligence.
Kidman to a lesser extent, but only slightly does the same thing with Carlson, perhaps more fierce than Kelly, certainly bristling with anger. A much-loved actress, Kidman won her Oscar the year before Theron for The Hours (2002) as writer Virginia Woolf, and has been nominated several other times, before the win and after. Kidman is very much an actress, not caring if the role is a lead or supporting, provided it says something, speaks to her. She balances quite easily, being an actress with being a movie star.
Robbie is a revelation as the single character in the film who did not exist and is comprised of several women rolled into one. Ambitious, she arrives at Fox a sunny, thrilled young woman ready to take on the world and knowing she has the looks, body, and talent to do it. But when she realizes her looks and body are going to be exploited against her, that she will be asked to do sexual acts with an old man, that they do not take her talent seriously at all unless she lies down for them, she becomes appalled with everything about Fox. Watch her face and body language, the joy is sucked right out of her, in a profoundly fine performance. Robbie might be the finest young actress in film right now, her performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) announcing her arrival, but it was her utter transformation into disgraced skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017) that drew critics to her. You cannot imagine her physical beauty as you are speaking with her, and to see her become Harding was extraordinary. Twice this year she has been deserving of Oscar’s attention, the first time as sunny, Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and again here, as Kayla.
Both Kate McKinnon and John Lithgow do excellent work, Lithgow given the edge here because he has more screen time and is brilliant as the lecherous old man who cannot keep his hands to himself or his zipper done up. The moment he lays eyes on Kayla, he has begun formulating what he will do to her and what he wants from her. When he executes his plan, we feel her disgust, her shame, and her emotional pain. She will never be the same. He becomes to us at that moment, disgusting.
Roach does a fine job bringing this to the screen, especially so soon after the events actually happened. He did the same with the superb Game Change which saw Emmy winning performances from Julianne Moore and Ed Harris in a biting satire that sadly was all very true,
What makes Bombshell so disturbing, so filled with shame, is that it was drawn from life. It happened and cost Aisles his job and reputation. I wonder what it cost the women…I think a great deal more.
Was it worth it sir … was wounding those beautiful women worth losing everything you built … I wonder.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.