Just because a movie belongs to the genre Slate’s Dana Stevens has called “Bad Moments From Recent History, Recreated in Uncanny Detail” doesn’t guarantee that everything in it is accurate. The new movie Bombshell tells the story of how the women of Fox News brought down the network’s infamous CEO, Roger Ailes, but it does so by filling the film with a mix of characters who are based on real figures and others who have no one real-life counterpart. Read on for a full account of what’s fair, what’s balanced, and what’s potentially neither in the movie.
Charlize Theron plays Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, and the movie opens as she is preparing to host a 2015 Republican presidential primary debate that would go on to cause a monthslong feud between her and future President Donald Trump. As in the movie, Kelly really was “violently ill” that day, and she really did have to contend with competing agendas from Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, owner of the company’s corporate parent, over how hard to question Trump. The movie is also faithful in its depiction of the relationship between Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, who kicked off Ailes’ eventual ouster by publicly accusing him of sexual harassment: The two were collegial but not friends.
Kelly’s decision to come forward about the harassment she faced toward the beginning of her time at the company was similarly complicated and perhaps not as heroic as Bombshell makes it out to be: As Ailes biographer and former New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman wrote: “Carlson’s lawsuit presented an opportunity. Kelly could bust up the boys’ club at Fox, put herself on the right side of a snowballing media story, and rid herself of a boss who was no longer supportive of her—all while maximizing her leverage in a contract negotiation.”
Nicole Kidman takes on the role of Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News anchor whose diminishing position at the network stands in contrast with Kelly’s. Bombshell shows Carlson planning her lawsuit against Roger Ailes diligently, as Carlson apparently did in real life too. She really had been speaking to her attorneys far in advance of filing the actual lawsuit—in New Jersey and against Ailes personally, rather than the company, to avoid arbitration—and it’s also true that she had started recording her conversations with Ailes in the year or so leading up to her firing. (In the movie, this is a dramatic third-act reveal.) The most damning of the recordings was probably the one in which Ailes was caught saying to her, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago.” Carlson received $20 million in the eventual settlement.
“Kayla Pospisil” (and “Jess Carr”)
Kayla Pospisil, the ambitious young “evangelical millennial” producer (played by Margot Robbie) who works for Carlson’s show when she is introduced, is a composite character invented for the movie. But there is some truth to the way the character becomes one of Ailes’ victims in the film: Kayla first meets with Ailes alone in his office because she sees it as a chance to advance her career, whereas he uses it as a chance to harass her. In real life, Ailes had at least one employee, Laurie Luhn—who eventually publicly accused him of harassment herself—whose job included “luring young female Fox employees into one-on-one meetings with Ailes that Luhn knew would likely result in harassment,” as New York magazine reported.
When Pospisil moves on to a new job on Bill O’Reilly’s show, she befriends Jess Carr, a producer played by Kate McKinnon. This character is another composite. While there have been examples of secret liberals within the walls of Fox News over the years, no one of her specific profile—a lesbian who supports Hillary Clinton and works for O’Reilly—was part of any of the reporting surrounding the Ailes scandal. Nor was a secret lesbian tryst between an Ailes victim and a veteran producer.
Malcolm McDowell plays mogul and longtime Ailes enabler Rupert Murdoch in the movie, and his sons, James and Lachlan, are portrayed by real-life Aussie brothers Josh and Ben Lawson, respectively. James and Lachlan really were at Sun Valley, the Idaho resort town and conference, when they found out about Carlson’s lawsuit. It’s also true that there was longstanding tension between the brothers and Ailes, which is part of why they supported quickly conducting an internal investigation at Fox News. Ailes resented reporting to Murdoch’s sons, and the sons had less tolerance for Ailes’ exploits than their father.
As the movie illustrates, Trump’s presidential candidacy proved to be a point of contention for Rupert Murdoch and Ailes. Ailes was more deferential of Trump than Rupert initially was, and this may have worked to the sons’ advantage in eventually pushing for Ailes’ ouster. As for Ailes’ hard-to-miss derogatory comment about James in the film (“Tell me that mouth hasn’t sucked a cock”), it supposedly really happened, though a Fox spokesman denied it. Similarly, the showdown between Lachlan and Ailes over anthrax in the office in the aftermath of 9/11 also really happened. Still, the decision to let Ailes off relatively easily in the end was what Rupert wanted in both real life and the film. (The sons, it must be said, aren’t quite as handsome in real life as the movie makes them out to be.)
The Culture of Fox News
Was Fox News circa 2016 as misogynistic a place as the movie suggest? It sure seems like it! The infamous “leg cam” mentioned in the movie is reportedly real, and accounts by former employees who tried to speak up about harassment, like Rudi Bakhtiar’s and Andrea Mackris’, were reportedly company lore during Ailes’ reign. The movie’s anecdote from a makeup artist at the network who helped primp female employees on their way to see Roger—“One of them came back down after a meeting, and the makeup on her nose and chin was gone”—also comes directly from reporting of the scandal.
Roger Ailes—and His Downfall
Apparently making Ailes out to be a villain didn’t require much embellishing. Much of what the movie tells us about him is backed up by accounts of the scandal. He indeed occupied a second-floor suite at the News Corp. headquarters in New York City with a camera outside his door. The “black room” and the employing of detectives to dig up dirt was real, too. As in the movie, he was known for asking women to stand up and spin around for him as well as justifying his actions by calling television a “visual medium.” Even the horrible details of his parents’ divorce—they are said to have broken up and moved out of his childhood home while he was away at college—are real: That one appears in Gabriel Sherman’s book.
Played by Connie Britton in the movie, Ailes’ wife, Beth, was by his side throughout the scandal, reportedly taking it just as personally as he did. She was, as in the movie, one of the people who pressured Megyn Kelly to speak out on Ailes’ behalf after the Carlson lawsuit came out. Ailes himself tried to weaponize the Fox News apparatus to attack and discredit Carlson and eventually Kelly. As in the movie, some news sites like Breitbart reported that some of Fox’s top talent promised to quit if Ailes were removed, but such a pact did not actually exist and may have been planted by Roger’s team.
Ailes did have friends and allies, too, including Rudy Giuliani (played by Richard Kind in the movie) and his lawyer, Susan Estrich (played by Allison Janney), despite her background as a staunch feminist. Female Fox personalities like Jeanine Pirro and Greta Van Susteren also spoke up for Ailes eagerly. (Though whether Pirro confronted Megyn Kelly at a vending machine and asked her to do the same, as in the movie, is less clear.) The movie leaves out the fun detail that when it became clear that Ailes was on his way out at Fox, Estrich, meaning to send a statement to the Drudge Report, accidentally sent a draft of his $40 million separation agreement, which Drudge then published, and unpublished—though some questioned whether this was a mistake or negotiating tactic.
When it came time to go, Ailes did agree to a noncompete clause, and indeed didn’t get his wish to say goodbye and address the newsroom along with Rupert Murdoch, who did that on his own, locking Ailes out unceremoniously. Ultimately, 10 women publicly accused Ailes of sexual harassment, and he would go on to die the following year at 77.