In a world of spin, propaganda and outright lies, Fox News may seem like a counter-intuitive choice for a fact-based drama but facts there are in this frustratingly superficial look under the rock of America’s foremost right-wing rhetoric factory.
The film charts the eventual fall from…well, not grace exactly…in any event, it charts the fall from power of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the powerful and – as it turns out – predatory head of Rupert Murdoch’s cable news network, taking the fledgeling channel from the fringes to the bubbling centre of American envy and paranoia at the hands of scores of women scorned, led by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). It begins, as nearly all contemporary farces do, with the 2016 Republican Primaries, just as Donald Trump starts the unexpected surge which blindsided the cosy Republican establishment and eventually installed him in the White House. Unexpected, that is, to all but Ailes who senses the turn to anger of the national mood that will eventually put a malignant narcissist in the White House and keep the Presidential televisions tuned to Fox News. Against the backdrop of this seismic shift in the bloated American body politic, Gretchen Carlson, having been demoted from Foz and Friends is fired for expressing less than complete enthusiasm for the right to bear assault weapons.
In turn, she files suit against Ailes personally for sexual harassment, threatening the network with a massive scandal if the allegations are corroborated. With all eyes on Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) – already under intense pressure for her perceived antipathy towards Trump – pressure grows for the network’s most popular personality to take sides in an increasingly bitter propaganda war. In amongst the real-life figures, the film weaves a fictional set of characters to act as a cautionary reinforcement of yet another generation of women being subjected to the lascivious whims of powerful men led by Margot Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil, a young intern whom Ailes starts to take a less-than-savoury interest in.
Thanks to some sterling performances and deceptively simple make-up, the film manages to bring its characters, deplorable and otherwise, to life without sliding into SNL-style parody. If anything, it underplays the hatchet-faced rictus-masked fury of the likes of Jeanine Pirro and strains its own credibility in its portrayal of Rudy Guliani (Richard Kind) as a somewhat competent lawyer averse to crazy conspiracy theories. It’s also oddly distracting and somewhat lazy, given how hard they’ve worked to make the talented and well-known cast look like their real-life counterparts, that the film uses actual archive footage instead of restaging the footage or digitally compositing it with movie footage.
It may be the keenness to avoid the inevitable comparisons with Saturday Night Live that makes the film constantly pull its punches and while it doesn’t come close to condoning anything that happened, it presents it all with a curiously detached and disinterested air, with only the performances of Theron, Kidman, Robbie and Lithgow bringing any sense of life and drama. It all feels very sanitised – and safe – as it seeks not to alienate the movie-going audience who may be Fox News-watching folks at home. In the light of the #MeToo movement, the movie’s overall timidity feels like something of a disappointment.