Over the past decade—what could be called the #metoo era—sexual assault, harassment and abuses have been uncovered at nearly every level, from ordinary households to the entertainment industry and the world of politics. It seems that anywhere money, power and prestige are at stake, people are willing to tolerate, ignore and excuse the sexual abuse and exploitation of others in order to hold onto it. However, with seemingly ever more high-profile cases emerging every day, and every brave survivor speaking out inspiring another to do likewise, it seems that, as the hashtag has it, “time’s up” on the cultural tolerance of sexual abuse.
There have been a few recent attempts to tackle this subject in cinema, from the industry surrounding which, many of its most high-profile cases arose. In documentaries, dramatisations and fictionalised accounts, filmmakers have mastered the medium of cinema in a variety of different ways to not only reinforce this cultural narrative but to give audiences the tools with which to understand these situations. It’s one thing to read a headline, quite another to see a situation play out onscreen with characters and real people you’ve come to relate to. Art is a valuable tool in not only rewarding emotional engagement in an issue, but in creating that engagement in the first place, and that’s something that the four films chosen for this article achieve to varying degrees.
Bombshell was not a film I had high hopes for. I really dislike ‘marketed’ feminism and it’s becoming a much more prevalent thing these days. While I certainly consider the fact that emphasising the ‘feminist’ credentials of a product has become a profitable marketing strategy, to be emblematic of positive societal change and a much-needed increase in public awareness of feminist issues, and dispelling the myth of post-feminism, very often it manifests as blatant and insincere corporate strategising to hit liberal demographics.
The marketing campaign for Bombshell, in particular, reeked of exactly that brand of insincerity, with the trailer boasting tongue in cheek lines about menstruation set to an atrocious remix of Billie Eilish‘s terrific song “Bad Guy.” Even worse was the repellent ‘elevator’ teaser trailer, which actively misled audiences about what the film was about and played into the worst tropes of jealous female workspace dynamics, as the three leads give each other the side-eye, with zero context for what is transpiring. The trailer’s tense tone made it look like they were competing for something or hiding something from each other.
The scene plays out totally different in the film, with the performances and editing conveying a completely different meaning. Even the title emphasises the appearances of the lead actors, characterising them as ‘bombshells,’ plastering the word across the faces of the three blonde leads. It’s admittedly a clever triple meaning though and I see why the temptation was too much to resist.
Bombshell proudly proclaims itself the ‘first film of the #metoo era,’ which, as someone who has written academically about the films of the #metoo era, it was bait I couldn’t leave in the water. The film was, of course, written and directed by men. However, although, yes, this does show, it doesn’t show too much, which adds weight to my theory that identity politics are no excuse for sloppy creative decisions.
Lightly fictionalising the true events, the film principally follows three members of the Fox Newsroom, each at different levels of the company, and as the film starts, all of whom have already or will soon, experience sexual harassment from the Newsroom head Roger Ailes and others in the industry.
Credit should go to the casting and make-up department with everyone looking the part and many character actors hardly recognisable in supporting roles. Theron is reliably solid as News Anchor Megyn Kelly, Kidman is more convincing than usual—presumably as her character is often also putting on a false front—as talk show host Gretchen Carlson, who fires the starting pistol on the investigation, and John Lithgow is transformed into the benignly odious Ailes.
But the standout performances come, more surprisingly, from Kate McKinnon and Margot Robbie, both playing unusually restrained and sincere as two younger members of the news team. Their scenes together sensitively articulate the more personal and emotional drama of the scenario and the two have surprising amounts of chemistry, with both actors giving career-best performances. Much of the dialogue here could easily have come off as a succession of talking points and topical digs, but scenes like theirs add enough human drama to keep things feeling personal and uncomfortable.
The early scenes have something of the uneasy smarm of The Big Short and its knock-offs, but the film slowly finds a less flippant gear once the stakes are laid out. It never pushes too far into obvious moralising, and it navigates the issue of dealing with what is perceived as a liberal issue in a very conservative space fairly admirably. The film makes earnest efforts to bridge political divides while still standing firm on the hill on which it is prepared to die.
Although it’s not as punchy or authoritative as perhaps it could have been, I was still pleasantly surprised with Bombshell‘s treatment of its tough subject matter, packaging it accessibly in a prestige drama mould without significantly watering down its urgency.
Athlete A (2020)
Like Bombshell, Athlete A, one of the best documentaries of recent time, homes in on one particular perpetrator, through the perspective of the many female survivors of his molestation, as the film asks how a sexual abuser could find shelter to operate and abuse underage gymnasts for more than two decades, at the very centre of the USA Gymnastics Association.
The film follows the survivors—many of them celebrated Olympians—and their families, as they fought for their voices against the unsympathetic and apathetic gymnastics association, and just as often against their own internalised sense of shame, itself a product of the institutionalised cruelty fostered by USA Gymnastics and their coaches.
The film also follows the police and journalistic investigation of the case, looking not only to bring the predatory doctor to account, but expose the toxic climate of emotional abuse in the name of excellence, and the principles and ideology that fostered a silence that has sacrificed the well-being of more than 500 young women in order to preserve an undeserved reputation for excellence.
The solitary flaw I found with the film was in some of the scenes in the offices of the Indianapolis Star which felt staged and contrived at times as a very inelegant method of exposition. Just telling your audience facts in a forthright manner is an acceptable practice in a documentary and I don’t know why you’d slip into docudrama mode and have people bluntly tell them to each other.
Despite that sort of extremely minor flaw though, the film’s sprawling approach trawls its feminist net through every level of the case, approaching it from every conceivable angle and presenting an exhaustive case study in how, not only individual institutions such as USA Gymnastics and the FBI but also society in general, incubates sexual abuse and insulates the abuser while ostracising the survivors of the abuse.
On the Record (2020)
As far as documentaries recounting first–hand evidence of institutional sexual assaults perpetrated by a singular individual, Athlete A is a tough act to follow. On the Record takes a similar approach, mixing archive footage and talking-head interviews to present the testimonials of its subjects, but focuses more closely on the story of a single survivor. This survivor is Drew Dixon, a record executive at Def Jam Records in the early 90s who alleges that the label head, Russell Simmons, raped her. The film describes the climate leading up to the assault and the impact it had on her psychologically and on her career in the decades that followed.
The film takes this incident as a starting point and expands outwards to look at cultural attitudes towards sexual assault, particularly as it manifests within black communities. It particularly explores the ambivalence many rape survivors feel with regard to coming forward and extremely well articulates the many reasons why they might want to keep the truth hidden.
These sociological insights are lent great credibility by the involvement of activists, philosophers and cultural commentators such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined the term “intersectionality” in regard to black feminism, Michele Wallace, author of “Masculinity in Black Popular Culture: Could It Be that Political Correctness Is the Problem” and Tarana Burke, who back in 2006, founded the “MeToo” movement itself.
Through these voices On the Record allows the viewer to see a uniquely African American perspective on sexual assault, and the specific barriers confronting black women who make the decision to speak out against their attackers. The film explores how black women often feel that by speaking publicly against their abusers, they would be allying themselves alongside a white justice system which abuses black men so criminally—exactly the phenomenon Wallace discusses in the aforementioned article.
There are just a few moments when these broader claims felt somewhat disingenuous though. For example, in one scene the film claims that the response towards black women who speak out against black abusers is uniquely vitriolic and misogynistic, yet the examples cited are all but identical to those Athlete A found levelled against its white subjects. I have no difficulty believing that such a disparity does exist, but the film didn’t make an especially strong case for it, often raising nuances of class and privilege that it ultimately shies away from.
What it does do phenomenally well though, is explore in a very fine grain way, the experiences of speaking out and not speaking, how they affect a person psychologically and how important the way we talk about these issues on social platforms is. Possibly the most powerful scene in the film is one where Dixon and her Goddaughter listen to the Hot 97 radio show where they discuss her allegations. It’s an extremely potent articulation of the value of allyship and how devastating and isolating its absence can be.
As directly harrowing and infuriating as the film’s testimonials are, it’s this sort of moment of collective healing and nurture that On the Record chooses to leave its audience with. It’s a sad state of affairs that merely moving on with their lives and rediscovering in some small way to the passion that brought them to the music industry in the first place is as much personal recompense as these brave women receive, but it’s a little cathartic to share in, if in an extremely tempered fashion.
The Assistant (2019)
In this reviewer’s opinion though, the very best of the films to tackle this uncomfortable subject is Kitty Green’s naturalist masterpiece The Assistant. There are few other films approaching the grasp The Assistant can lay claim to, on either its subject or on the viewer.
It’s a fictionalised story, clearly inspired by cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, the film follows the assistant to a film producer over the course of a single very long working day, during which she gradually realises both how deeply the casual sexism of her co-workers runs, and how her employer is abusing his power in the industry.
The film makes extensive use of static cameras and virtually no score, in a style reminiscent of art-house filmmakers such as Joanna Hogg, with much of the dialogue drifting through closed doors. It’s certainly not for the impatient or unsympathetic viewer but is anchored by a simply fantastic central performance from lead actor Julia Garner into whose perspective the viewer is phenomenally well sutured through this spartan and naturalistic style. We feel her isolation, her mounting despondency as she finds herself more and more trapped by the walls of granite-like silence surrounding her.
The scene in which she does attempt to give voice to her suspicions is one of the most immaculately infuriating in cinema, as she realises how alone the system has left her and the tools that were supposed to protect her vanish like mist as soon as she tries to pick them up. It’s a near-perfect work of film—making that suggests a creator in full command of the mise-en-scene and script, in which each and every decision is pulling in the same creative direction.
There are some moments that might feel as if they are too on the nose or unrealistic, but these moments make total emotional sense within the context of the narrative and serve it to devastating effect. It’s a slow, yet disciplined, absorbing and insidiously devastating piece of work and one of the most essential and important films of not only this year but the last decade.