Bombshell’s telling of Fox CEO Roger Ailes’ downfall is satisfying but uneven

The biopic stars John Lithgow’s wadded-up cheeks of doom and Hollywood glamazons Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie but never quite nails down a compelling story

He died in 2017 but suddenly it feels like Roger Ailes is everywhere. Russell Crowe recently picked up a Golden Globe for going full pasta and commander as the hard-headed but soft-cheeked CEO of Fox News in the TV mini-series The Loudest Voice. Now John Lithgow, the prolific actor probably still best known for sci-fi sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, has donned the requisite jowl prosthetics to bring the septuagenarian Ailes to unctuous life in Bombshell, a new biopic charting his belated downfall.

Ailes, were he alive, would likely disapprove of all this. With Rupert Murdoch’s financial backing, he founded his blustery right-wing propaganda machine in 1996 and soon perfected a glossy, haranguing style but preferred to pull the strings from behind closed doors. From his security-locked office he would soak up Fox content on a wall of screens before phoning in his instructions on a direct (and dreaded) hotline to the production suite, all scenes zippily recreated here.

His inner sanctum was also where Ailes handled staff relations, constantly nagging his photogenic female talent about the importance of looking good for the cameras, which generally meant showing more leg. Here, he has a casual catchphrase that Lithgow imbues with supreme creepiness: “It’s a visual medium.”

Roly-poly Lithgow and his wadded-up cheeks of doom have not featured too heavily in the Bombshell publicity push: movies, too, are a visual medium. Instead, you could be forgiven for thinking the film is some sort of Charlie’s Angels tribute, with a dream trio of Hollywood glamazons – Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie – teaming up to take down a dangerous old goat. The reality is a little different, not least because Ailes pitted his female employees against each other so they were less likely to compare notes on his hands-on management style.

Theron’s Megyn Kelly is the savvy high-flier, a sharp-witted Fox star who in 2015, when the movie begins, is feuding with would-be Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In the UK we may not be as familiar with Kelly but Theron’s evocation of both her on-camera and off-camera personas is remarkable. Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is seemingly on a downhill career slope, padding out the daytime schedules with a show that champions women’s rights in a way that often infuriates Ailes. Alongside these two real-life journalists is Robbie’s fresh-faced but fictional wannabe Kayla Pospisil, a composite character who arrives at Fox as a lowly assistant producer desperate to be in front of the camera. That ambition will lead her right into Ailes’s den for the film’s standout scene, in which all of Lithgow’s inherent charisma sours into something far darker.

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Bombshell joins a growing list of films like The Big Short and Vice where writers and directors better known for making comedy tackle real-life political and financial issues in a way that is supposed to be entertaining as well as informative. Director Jay Roach, who made his name with the Austin Powers franchise, has steered toward this kind of thing since 2012’s Game Change, his HBO biopic of Sarah Palin starring Julianne Moore.

At its best, this emerging genre feels transgressive and disruptive, a bird-flipping response to chaotic times. But these films also tend to package up effective vignettes – be they flashbacks or fourth-wall-breaking explainers – rather than telling a compelling story. In Bombshell, there is so much going on, and so many competing captions reminding you who everyone is, that it never seems to nail down exactly how Ailes was able to sexually harass his staff for so long and with such impunity. It is, however, supremely satisfying to see him receive his comeuppance.

Bombshell is in cinemas now