It’s commonly believed that hatred pays a higher “psychological dividend” than peace, love and understanding. This debatable insight, which assumes the bleakest view of human nature, seems to be borne out by the success of Fox News. The formula pioneered by Murdoch svengali, Roger Ailes, was to turn the news into an adversarial contest with all the partisanship of the Superbowl and the entertainment value of the Jerry Springer Show.
The actual details of the day’s news were seen as less important than the spin that could be put on them, tailored to the existing prejudices of Fox’s mass audience. It’s only during the Trump era that the full value of this approach has become apparent, with the station acting as a shameless propaganda machine for a President who has made a mockery of the Consititution and the rule of law. The short-term result is a radically divided population, the long-term outcomes are too scary to contemplate.
Bombshell is the second attempt to look behind the Fox News scandal of 2016, the first being the TV series, The Loudest Voice, which starred Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes. I’ve yet to see that saga so I won’t be making any comparisons. The series covered the final decade of Ailes’s career during which he became known as the most powerful man in television, but the movie focuses on the sexual harrassment charges that brought about his downfall. The actor playing Ailes is John Lithgow, transfomed almost beyond recognition, but still looking nothing like the real person.
Director, Jay Roach, whose previous feature was a bio pic of blacklisted scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, has a particular political slant. Nevertheless it would require a Fox stalwart such as Sean Hannity or Judge Jeanine to find any positives in this tale.
The story revolves around the experiences of three women: Fox anchors, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman); and a fictional character, Kayla Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie. It’s telling that Robbie is the one who has been nominated for an Oscar, because it’s probably easier when your performance can’t be compared to a real-life model, let alone be subject to their comments and criticisms.
The three American leads are played by two Australians and a South African, but this is only the beginning of the casting oddities. The only reasons I can see why Australian brothers, Josh and Ben Lawson are cast as James and Lachlan Murdoch, is that they are: 1. Australian and 2. brothers. The real jaw-dropper is Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch. One thinks inevitably of McDowell’s notorious early role as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Are we to think of Murdoch senior as partial to a bit of “ultra-violence”, or should we imagine him strapped to a chair being forced to watch untold hours of Fox News?
It was Ailes’s deeds as a serial sexual harrasser that eventually brought him undone but the bigger issue in this film concerns the mechanics of power. The Murdochs may be the owners of Fox News but Ailes was the master strategist that built up the business and made it hugely profitable. In his worldview the rules are decided by those in charge. One of the privileges of power is to decide who is hired and fired, and under what circumstances. Think of Donald Trump saying to the President of Ukraine, “I would like you to do us a favour, though”, and then think of Ailes saying the same thing to some young woman who aspired to be a presenter.
In the language of power there’s always a favour, or some kind of quid pro quo. Ailes made it pretty clear what he expected from the aspiring talent. He wanted attractive female presenters that were prepared to display plenty of flesh. The women he interviewed alone in his office were asked to twirl around, to show him their legs, and eventually provide the blowjob that was his ultimate thrill. He may have been old, fat, ill and ugly, only able to walk with a zimmer frame, but he could still get these girls on their knees with the promise of a job.
When Kayla has her one-on-one with Ailes, he asks her to lift her skirt, higher and higher, because “television is a visual medium”. She looks increasingly distraught, while he snorts with animal satisfaction. It’s the most electrifying moment in the film: the very essence of sexual harrassment.
The beginning of the end came about when Gretchen Carlson broke ranks, after becoming frustrated by the sexist attitudes of her male co-presenters. She planned her campaign well but there was a long hiatus before other women joined in. Megyn Kelly was a crucial figure because she had already endured a notorious run-in with Presidential candidate Trump over his attitude to women, and found herself the target of the now-familiar Twitterstorm of insults, along with threats and hate-mail from fanatical Trump supporters. On the other hand, she had a great deal to lose by severing ties with Fox.
Kelly is the central character in this film, and Charlize Theron captures her better than one might have imagined possible. Nicole Kidman’s version of Carlson is not so convincing. She is the vital catalyst for the scandal but remains a sketchy personality. The sideshow is to watch a parade of actors playing Fox News celebrities and hangers-on, from Kimberly Guilfoyle to Rudy Guiliani. It proves the impossibility of making a caricature out of a living caricature.
Bombshell’s subject matter may be absorbing but the film is as patchy as a news bulletin. We jump from one scene to the next, from one character to another, in the manner of a current affairs program. Neither does the movie entirely succeed as an inspirational portrayal of the elimination of a toxic culture. A note at the end informs us that Fox paid out US$50 million to the victims of sexual harrassment and US$65 million to Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, the chief offenders. The Fox News of today, without presenters such as Kelly and Carlson, is even more extreme in its views and more influential than ever. It appears that the bombshell of 2016 made an almighty noise but inflicted no lasting damage.
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Charles Randolph
Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Rob Delaney, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass
USA/Canada, rated M, 109 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 January, 2020