Before Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement there was Roger Ailes. Ailes was the CEO and Chairman of the Fox News network which he made into a huge money-spinner for the Murdochs by catering to the rightest of the right-wing in politics and popular opinion in the US. He subsequently lost it all – job, status, power – when female Fox staff blew the whistle on his sexual harassment.
Bombshell is the story of his exposure and fall from grace, which occurred in 2016. It’s not the first screen telling of the story. That was The Loudest Voice, a seven-part TV miniseries which stars Russell Crowe as Ailes, and which I haven’t seen, and which tells those parts of the Ailes story that the movie-length Bombshell can’t fit in: for instance his history as a Republican Party strategist and adviser to Donald Trump (surprise surprise) and his earlier sacking from CNN, also over sexual harassment allegations. It’s a wonder he didn’t beat Harvey Weinstein to the dubious honour of having instigated #MeToo!
In Bombshell the storyline is necessarily compressed. It starts with a fast-paced heads-up in which central character Megyn Kelly, the network’s most prominent and valued female anchor, breaks the fourth wall by walking and talking us through Fox Central in New York, introducing us to the vast and complex cast of journos, presenters, producers, researchers, lawyers, publicists and media execs including Rupert Murdoch and his sons. She observes at one stage that ‘most of America’s conservative establishment is in this building’. It’s useful although a bit hard to digest all at once and at first you wonder how you’re going to remember which glamorous blonde is which. Their identities become clear as the story progresses, and you suspect that this collective resemblance may well be explained by Ailes’ propensity to hire women based on their looks. The film focusses on how matters proceed after that: having learnt nothing from his sacking from CNN, and with a whole network of his own to play with now, Ailes promotes his female staff in return for sexual favours which he solicits in a most loathsome and humiliating way.
Needless to say it’s deep in Oscar buzz.
This is partly due to the powerhouse cast, which includes a bevy of Hollywood’s most beautiful and talented women. Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, whose eventual endorsement of the claims of less powerful women sealed Ailes’ fate. The film is coy about the extent to which she accommodated Ailes. No doubt it’s something she herself would prefer to forget. Incidentally, Megyn Kelly was the subject – remember? – of Donald Trump’s disgraceful comment that when interviewing him ‘she had blood coming out of her eyes’, and ‘other parts’ of her. Many thought this was a deliberately crude reference to menstrual tension. Maybe. I think it was just his typical kneejerk boorishness.
Nicole Kidman plays Gretchen Karlsen, who started the ball rolling with a lawsuit against Ailes alleging he demoted her from a prime-time on-air shift because she wouldn’t go along with his demands.
Margot Robbie plays a fictional composite of any number of ambitious backroom girls who acceded to his casting-couch demands because it seemed like the only way to get ahead.
John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes. I expect there was a certain amount of artifice – prosthetics, make-up and the like – employed to re-create the man’s physical loathsomeness, about which I’m allowed to be unkind because of his behaviour. Apparently such techniques were also used on Charlize Theron to make her look even more like Megyn Kelly than she does in reality, although you wonder why they bothered: google photos of both and you will see that they share a similar suave, mature beauty. (In fact Charlize Theron has just overtaken Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche on top of my personal list of World’s Most Beautiful Screen Women.)
English veteran Malcolm McDowell plays Rupert Murdoch with only the shakiest of holds on that peculiar yank/Aussie hybrid accent that he speaks. Aussie brothers Ben and Josh Lawson play Lachlan and James Murdoch respectively, with better accents, but memo Hollywood: both Murdoch scions sound like Americans anyway!
If I have one criticism it’s that sometimes the dialogue is so fast and muffled that you miss things. I’m all for naturalism in film-making but sometimes a spot of old-fashioned theatricality emphasising diction and clarity wouldn’t go astray.
Bombshell has been criticised for whitewashing the right-wing propensities of its feminist heroines – they did choose to work for Fox, after all – but my bet is it’ll take out Best Picture Oscar.