directed by Jay Roach
A drama about the downfall of Fox News media mogul Roger Ailes lacks insight.
The expansive and edgier television series Loudest Voice last week won Russell Crowe a Golden Globe for playing Ailes, a portrayal that was heavy on prosthetics and paranoia.
Its seven episodes (available on SkyGo) make for an impressively grim news-media backstage drama. It was created by Tom McCarthy, whose earlier Spotlight was possibly the last great modern newspaper-journalism film. Loudest Voice was based on Gabriel Sherman’s New York magazine journalism and subsequent book, The Loudest Voice in the Room. As well as his downfall, the series also charted the rise of Ailes from media consultant to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush to the guy Rupert Murdoch hired to run his US cable news operation. That was until 2016, when he gave Ailes a US$40 million golden handshake to depart after sexual harassment allegations from dozens of women, many of whom received payouts a fraction of that.
What Bombshell does in its pacy snarky 108 minutes is to tell the story of the victims while playfully skewering the frighten-and-titillate culture of Fox News. The script is by Charles Randolph, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Big Short, a movie of another great American scandal. It’s directed by Jay Roach, who has helmed solid HBO political telemovies such as Recount, Game Change and All the Way, having done comedy franchises Meet the Parents and Austin Powers. Those HBO productions may explain why this movie about television – despite having film stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie – feels a lot like watching television.
It may also explain why its own Ailes, played by a cuddly John Lithgow, exudes all the menace of Austin’s nemesis, Dr Evil. That’s apart from one unnerving scene opposite Robbie’s character. She plays Kayla Pospisil, a composite character representing some of Ailes’ victims. A newly hired peachy-keen assistant producer, she’s an “evangelical millennial” from red-state America whose family think of Fox News like church.
Robbie may not be playing an actual famous person in the film but hers is the best performance. Kidman’s portrayal of Gretchen Carlson, the former Miss America-turned-Fox News star whose lawsuit against Ailes marked the beginning of his end, might start off reminding of her great performance as the psychotically ambitious weather presenter in 1995’s To Die For, but her character doesn’t sustain.
Theron does better as the channel’s onetime biggest star, Megyn Kelly, who is there initially to give us a narrated guided tour of the Fox News operation and its embedded sexism. The film also follows her confrontation with Donald Trump during the 2015 Republican presidential debate over his misogyny and how the backlash against her became a ratings winner with Ailes throwing the channel’s support behind the candidate.
Later, behind the scenes, she suffers a dilemma about joining Ailes’ accusers, saying she’s “damned for doing it and for not doing it sooner”. But other than Theron’s convincing physical transformation, the character of Kelly remains elusive and her role in Ailes’ demise is possibly overstated. Notably, The Loudest Voice didn’t feature her as a character, with Sherman saying, “Any dramatisation that makes her a central character in Ailes’ takedown is pure fiction.”
Bombshell bills itself as “inspired by actual events”. It just seems it hasn’t wrought much insight from them and it’s only some of the better performances that stop it from being a dud.
IN CINEMAS FROM JANUARY 16
Video: STUDIOCANAL New Zealand
This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.