Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
USA/Canada, 2019. Annapurna Pictures, Bron Studios, Creative Wealth Media Finance, Denver and Delilah Productions, Lighthouse Management & Media, Lionsgate. Screenplay by Charles Randolph. Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. Produced by A.J. Dix, Aaron L. Gilbert, Robert Graf, Michelle Graham, Beth Kono, Charles Randolph, Margaret Riley, Jay Roach, Charlize Theron. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Production Design by Mark Ricker. Costume Design by Colleen Atwood. Film Editing by Jon Poll. Academy Awards 2019. Dorian Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2019. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2019.
More than a decade after Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) was hired as CEO of Fox News by media titan Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), the infotainment disguising itself as hard journalism is pulling in solid ratings and providing a third of Murdoch’s empire’s income. Fox News emphasizes stories that are slanted to appeal to, as Kate McKinnon’s producer character puts it, what would shock your grandmother or piss off your grandfather, its network brimming with reactionary stories meant to soothe white middle-class panic as delivered by gorgeous, leggy reporters selected by Ailes himself. At the top of the heap in this operation is Megyn Kelly (portrayed with riveting calm by Charlize Theron), who takes up Murdoch’s request to give 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump a hard time and finds herself at the receiving end of a nasty backlash from the public. A bit beyond her best days is Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), whose softer conservative stance has been used as an excuse for downgrading her to a solo afternoon spot, but she knows it is really her punishment for having objected to sexist treatment on her prime time panel show. New to the game is the fictional character of Kayla (Margot Robbie), who has landed her dream job at the station and is hoping to make it to the top of the heap, risking Carlson’s wrath when she quits her program to work on Bill O’Reilly’s show with closet liberal McKinnon. When Carlson gets fired and responds with a sexual harassment suit against Ailes, it plunges the entire network into chaos and Kelly into a quandary: does she want to risk her incredible career success to speak out for or against Carlson, or is it best to stay out of it? Her rise to the top hasn’t been easy and the thick skin she has developed is the result of letting a lot of very bad behavior slide, is that inevitable or is it even possible to change the way things are? Meanwhile, Kayla sinks further into a psycho Barbie doll vibe as she takes advantage of the opportunities Ailes provides, realizing only too late what it will cost her. Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph have put this landmark media scandal on the big screen with the similar smirk that Vice employed, a mainstream #Metoo movie which never tries to sugarcoat the situations that its female characters either find themselves in or find the courage to speak out about, but one which never quite locates its centre, including on-screen and off-screen narration at random and pretending to be about all three main characters but giving Kelly’s section the most dramatic weight. The tonal shifts suggest that Roach and Randolph might have made this movie too soon, it’s sometimes irreverent but at other times painfully sincere, as if terrified of diminishing the importance of the subject matter of sexual harassment by applying any sarcasm to these specific figures. Some temporal distance might have allowed for some indulging in the rich irony that the women who scored such a huge liberal-style victory against ages-old patriarchal sexism are themselves conservative and remain so, Carlson advocates for people carrying handguns and doesn’t change her mind after sticking her boss to the wall for being a pig (the irony that Fox News began as Trump’s opponent before switching to being his best friend, however, is richly mined in the first third, and like most of the stories pursued in this movie doesn’t really pay off). Roach has never seemed afraid of contradictions in the past, look at his Sarah Palin film, HBO’s masterful Game Change, in which her ineptitude at the job is presented with the same sanguine directness as the tragedy of her being thrown under the bus by her own party. Game Change and Recount (about the Florida chad scandal) are superb works that far outshine this and Trumbo, Roach’s last feature, suggesting he cannot be as incisive on the big screen as he is on the small one, instead directing a Nine To Five for the current generation, bold, honest, humorless and terrified of nuance, its inclusion of fictional Kayla sticking out the most as her plot feels like a lecture. We conclude the experience with title cards that, rightly, point out that Ailes and O’Reilly’s victims got less in damages than they themselves got in severance pay, corporate amorality can never be overstated, but skipping the next part of the story, in which Kelly got even more from NBC after she was fired for championing blackface on The Today Show, suggests, along with Kayla’s own liberal-pandering conclusion, that we can only enjoy Ailes’ defeat if we argue that the women involved are all spotless heroes. What that means, then, is that not much has changed since the saloon gal/virginal maiden dichotomy of old westerns when it comes to how we handle women as an imaginative concept on screen; American cinema takes real life and fits it into a smaller narrative than audiences can handle, needing happy endings in the movies because reality, especially in the United States, is a series of terrifying cliffhangers. Kidman and Robbie turn in bright, energetic performances that work well against Roach’s somewhat sluggish pacing, but it’s Theron’s show all the way, her level gaze and measured responses perfectly capturing Kelly’s own solid presence on camera, showing off the actress’s best work since North Country with the immense pleasure of just watching her think. The supporting cast includes the appearances of a whole series of welcome players including Anne Ramsay, Alanna Ubach and Allison Janney, whose character deserves a lot more context.