The entertainment industry simply will not let Roger Ailes stay dead.
The jowly, predatory kingpin of Fox News, who shed this mortal coil in 2017—less than a year after his lucrative ouster from the network he shaped—has been the subject of no less than three major projects in two years. First came 2018’s “Divide and Conquer,” a solidly reported exploration of Ailes’ Machiavellian political history, his baseless paranoia and above all his decades-long pattern of sexual abuse.
Then came this year’s Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” which, while taking the inherent liberties of a dramatic series, better captured Ailes’ genius as well as his sickness. It was a classic “Citizen Kane” narrative about a titan of industry’s meteoric rise and ignominious fall. Gretchen Carlson, the Fox anchor whose tape-recorded evidence of her boss’s various sexual extortions led to a lawsuit and Ailes’ dismissal, doesn’t even enter the series until the midway point.
Director Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” which opens in South Florida theaters Dec. 19, is, like “The Loudest Voice,” a funhouse-mirror re-enactment of the 2016 allegations that brought down Ailes, though distorted through a different angle. This time, it’s the women who control the narrative, with Ailes reduced largely to a peripheral ogre. Given that he spent so much of his career preying on vulnerable women from his perch of power, there is much to savor in Roach, and screenwriter Charles Randolph’s, decision to strip most of that away—to make the loudest voices a chorus of three women.
One, of course, is Carlson, whom Nicole Kidman plays with the bravery, cunning and steely determination that have made her a pioneer in the #MeToo movement. Another is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), at the time the newest superstar of Fox’s prime-time lineup, and the central narrator of “Bombshell.” This casting represents an uncanny grafting of one telegenic beauty onto another: Theron disappears so fluently into Kelly’s sartorial bearing that I never saw a performer in makeup; it may be the closest I’ve encountered in any biopic to an actor playing themselves.
The central moral quandary of “Bombshell” is Kelly’s decision to go public, or not, about her own history of abuse from Ailes, knowing full well that by bolstering Carlson’s claims, her credible support would be enough to vanquish the villain. As a gripping storytelling device, it’s pretty weak tea, and not only because astute viewers know the result already. It’s because Kelly is, today, something between a cautionary tale and laughingstock in the halls of elite media, having spectacularly crashed and burned in her post-Fox foray with NBC News. To hinge the core of “Bombshell” on her crucial reluctance to stand with her fellow-victims is a sad reminder of her former relevance.
The third narrative, and the one most likely to rouse the ire of Ailes’ defenders, is that of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional composite of several women who spoke anonymously to the filmmakers, lest they break their non-disclosure agreements. While Kelly and Carlson always come off as real people navigating tough choices, Kayla, an ambitious young producer, is a cheery parody of a conservative evangelical millennial, who is given some cringe-worthy dialogue, i.e. “I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space.”
Indeed, Roach and Randolph’s story is clumsiest when it deals with people they made up, like Kate McKinnon’s Jess Carr, a fellow-producer at Fox—and a closet lesbian and, even worse, a closet Hillary Clinton backer—who befriends Kayla with pillow talk of Bill O’Reilly’s most lurid indiscretions. No doubt there are employees at Fox who don’t share the opinions of its anchors, but McKinnon’s character is a lefty’s fantasy of a Fox News subversive. Her casting is the opposite of Theron’s disappearance into Kelly; we only see the “SNL” satirist, the Hillary Clinton supporter who played Hillary Clinton.
As for Ailes? The incredible hulk is played this time by John Lithgow, in a manner that appears older, bitter and more irascible than Russell Crowe’s multifaceted embodiment in “The Loudest Voice,” which tempered the character’s revulsion with caustic humor. Lithgow may earn an Oscar nomination for the role, but it’s only the second-best Ailes impersonation of 2019.
Aside from a couple of sparse flashbacks, all of the action in “Bombshell” plays out against the tumult of the 2016 election, sleekly blurring stock footage of politicians and media figures with their casted imitators. I’m fairly torn about the end result: On the one hand, “Bombshell” is an important time-capsule document of #MeToo that has the potential to endure. On the other, it’s filmed with just the sort of glamorous, shallow, spit-shined aesthetic of which Fox News itself specializes. The wincing opening to the movie, in which Kelly introduces Ailes’ kingdom by touring us through the inner sanctums of the NewsCorp building, is so buoyant and dazzling it resembles a real-estate ad presented by a supermodel.
Perhaps this is why Ailes can’t seem to stay dead. Even in the context of a Hollywood hit piece against him, his influence is palpable.