Bombshell is the third screen account of his downfall. We’ve had Alexis Bloom’s documentary Divide and Conquer and the Showtime series The Loudest Voice. Drawn from the Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice has Russell Crowe’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Ailes, who sits at the centre of the story – a wily, volatile and strategically affable grey spider spinning a web of intrigue, influence and sexual intimidation.
But in Bombshell the women take over the narrative, and here’s another point of contention. Our chief guide is Kelly (Charlize Theron), who came relatively late to the campaign, revealing her experience of Ailes only to confirm the testimonies of other Fox women.
It was Carlson (Nicole Kidman) who set the dominoes falling, gathering proof by taping her conversations with Ailes and secretly briefing a firm of lawyers.
Furthermore, Bombshell’s script, by Charles Randolph (co-writer of The Big Short screenplay), elaborates on the facts with a fictitious character – Margot Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil, a fledgling producer whose on-camera ambitions trap her into having to say yes to Ailes
or be fired.
So we’re not getting the truth and nothing but the truth. Yet these embellishments do it no harm. Pospisil is a highly plausible creation, based on the evidence of those who went on the record, and you can understand the decision to give Kelly such prominence because her notorious feud with Donald Trump runs in tandem with the main event, amplifying its feminist theme and keeping you up with the machinations of Ailes, the kingmaker helping to ensure a Trump presidency – despite Rupert Murdoch’s reservations and the hostility of his sons, Lachlan and James.
The film’s director, Jay Roach, did the Austin Powers trilogy, but his sophisticated political films, Recount and Game Change, inform this one.
He and Randolph are rightly fascinated by the social climate and geography of the Fox offices – the factions, hierarchies, protocols and rivalries that define the place. It’s Kelly’s spot at the top of pecking order governing the network’s array of female on-air talent that gives the film much of its edge.
Her voice-over opens the film, taking you into the building and acquainting you with the layout – from the basement, home of the worker bees, to the executive offices where Ailes has his command centre, and her own eyrie on the 17th floor.
And Theron’s performance captures her from every angle – the model’s walk, the insuperable confidence, the relish for combat, the coolness under attack. As she wears it, the lacquered Fox style is body armour. She may do the right thing in the end but there’s no warm, sisterly glow on show.
Robbie’s Pospisil is yet to acquire her armour and perhaps she never will. She ventures into Ailes’ lair with a guileless optimism that quickly turns to shame once she realises what she’s in for.
John Lithgow’s Ailes has a lofty arrogance that speaks of a history of taking his power for granted and although the sex scenes are less explicit than they are in The Loudest Voice, their nastiness is enhanced by a grisly matter-of-factness.
Kidman’s Carlson is at the end of her Fox career. Ailes’ barbs and put-downs have been making that clear for a long time and the film picks her story up just as she’s about to go to the lawyers. Kidman’s best scenes take place once she’s taken the gamble and is at home, waiting for it to play out, armour off, nerves exposed.
We’re in a world where appearances are everything. Ailes’ favourite cliche is that television’s a visual medium. He trots it out as if it means something whenever he’s harassing one of his prospective victims into showing off her figure. It’s as if he’s inspecting a racehorse – although a racehorse would probably elicit more respect.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.