Ellin Stein reviews two dramatisations of the life and crimes of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News supremo.
You wouldn’t think the internal workings of a cable news channel would be compelling enough inspire not one but two “based on real events” projects, but such is the profile of FOX News and the Marmite reaction it provokes that the network, and its late CEO Roger Ailes, are the subject of both a prestige multipart drama on Sky Atlantic, The Loudest Voice, and a glossy new film, Bombshell.
To help the medicine of sexual politics and (limited) media critique go down, director Jay Roach is greatly aided by featuring three of the most beautiful women on the planet – Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie – in the brightly-colored bodycon dresses and high heels uniform of on-air FOX women (with more than a touch of the FemBots from his earlier Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and a truly hissable villain in the form of Ailes (John Lithgow), a combination of Harvey Weinstein, Machiavelli, and Sauron.
Already in trouble after kicking against the demeaning treatment female on-air hosts experience, former Miss America Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) is fired after she does her show without makeup to celebrate International Day of the Girl and, worse, questions whether semi-automatic rifles should be in private hands.
Carlson decides to sue, telling her lawyers she was demoted because she turned down Ailes’s advances.
Carlson goes in search of allies to corroborate her charges, but FOX’s top female anchor, the steely Meghyn Kelly (Theron) distances herself, declaring “I refuse to be the poster girl for sexual harassment.” When a journalist uncovers women from Ailes’s pre-FOX career who have endured not just harassment but even assault, the glacial Kelly asserts “those women may have been coached.”
However, she stays equally aloof from the ranks of Ailes cheerleaders, led by FOX host Kimberley Guilfoyle (now Mrs. Donald Trump Jr in real life), who urges the FOX women not to cooperate with an internal investigation set up by the Murdoch sons Lachlan and James, putting them at the top of Ailes’s extensive enemies list.
Instead Kelly starts her own investigation, which leads her to a recent recruit, Kayla Pospisi (Robbie), a self-described “Evangelical Millennial” who starts out full of starry-eyed admiration for FOX and Ailes and ends up disillusioned after a few private meetings in her boss’s office. Kayla, a composite character, initially spouts the official line that the news part of FOX is fair while the “Entertainers” (on-air demagogues like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity) provide “balance for an audience that doesn’t see their views represented elsewhere.”
Her eyes are opened by her cubicle-mate, another fictional — and somewhat unlikely — character, a closeted lesbian and Hillary supporter who advises Kayla the way to succeed at FOX is to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop: “The world is a bad place, People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick but interesting. Frighten, titillate. Frighten, titillate.”
In common with its subject, Bombshell is great to look at, snappy, and hugely entertaining, if a bit shallow. Sexual harassment and workplace bullying are dreadful experiences no one should have to endure, but it leaves a rather sour taste to root for affluent white (there’s barely a non-Caucasian face to be seen) women who become even more affluent– provided they sign NDAs — thanks to legal battles fought by movements regularly disparaged by the broadcaster whose success the beneficiaries enabled.
With the advantage of an extra four hours and benefitting from a superb performance by Russell Crowe in a fat suit, The Loudest Voice, a dramatization of Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Ailes, shows how the former aide to Nixon battled with the more pragmatic Rupert Murdoch over the years to have FOX News reflect his own paranoid, conspiratorial, fact-free bent: a leaning that found its perfect candidate in Donald Trump, who he advises to make “one or two simple points [e.g. Get Brexit Done] and it’s repeat, repeat, repeat.”
The series shows that Ailes’s sexual proclivities were as much about control as sex and the most chilling scenes depict him exerting that control over two subordinates, one male, one female, using cult-like techniques like not letting them leave his orbit to visit family. One, an idealistic young small-c conservative recruited by Mrs. Ailes (even more paranoid and ideologically-rigid than her husband) to edit the small-town newspaper she owns is disturbed to find the editorials he’s writing at his employer’s behest are dividing the formerly peaceful community, leading to public screaming matches and a witch-hunt against a liberal town supervisor.
This is the essential dimension missing from Bombshell – the awareness of how Ailes’s populist us-and-them legacy has corrupted the civil conversation on which democracy depends.
Bombshell is out in cinemas now. The Loudest Voice is showing on Sky Atlantic.