When Roger Ailes started Fox News, in 1996, he envisioned the female anchors and reporters as an army of women wearing tight, bright short-sleeve dresses just above the knee, sheer nude stockings, and high-heeled pumps. He treated these employees as both family and property, a dynamic that resulted in a very specific and oddly depersonalizing vision of female beauty. The women of Fox, who were instructed to wear their hair long (and preferably blonde), became a highly organized crew of fembots. They spoke directly to their audience—an ever-increasing cross section of conservative Americans who were eventually mobilized by Donald Trump—and projected a subtly suggestive yet comfortingly old-fashioned idea of femininity. Anchors like Gretchen Carlson (a former Miss America) and Megyn Kelly became interchangeable. In a perverse way, Ailes understood how clothing can instantly provide information and convey personality. On Fox News, the message and the messengers became inextricably linked.
Until they weren’t. Bombshell, which is in theaters on December 13, tells the story of Ailes’s downfall through the experiences of three women: the whistle-blower, Gretchen Carlson (played by Nicole Kidman); the increasingly outspoken anchor, Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron); and a true believer composite character named Kayla (played by Margot Robbie), who aims to scale the corporate ladder. The film is based on real events that transpired in the summer of 2016, when Carlson sued Ailes (played by John Lithgow) for sexual harassment and unleashed an avalanche of similar complaints. “It’s important to remember that Ailes left Fox News in July 2016, and that the Harvey Weinstein story did not come out in The New York Times until October 2017,” says Jay Roach, the director of Bombshell. “Ailes’s entire trajectory at Fox News happened before the eruption of the #MeToo movement that took place when the Weinstein story broke.”
Although the film vividly chronicles Ailes’s workplace sexual improprieties, it also charts the rise of Kelly, who became famous beyond Fox’s viewership after grilling then-candidate Donald Trump in a presidential debate about the terrible ways in which he had characterized women. In a postdebate interview, he infamously retaliated by stating that Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” a sexist innuendo that would prove typical for him but was shocking at the time. “Like most people, I first noticed Megyn at the Republican debates,” Theron, who is brilliant in the film, told me. Theron disappears into the character—she altered her normal speaking voice to sound exactly like Kelly, stressing her vocal cords in order to achieve a lower register. “I loved when Megyn took it to Trump. I admired her sharpness, her wit. She was fearless. But when my production company received the script for Bombshell, I was conflicted about playing her. I personally felt uncomfortable with some of the stuff that she’s said. But ultimately, I understood her strength and ambition. Megyn herself says, ‘I know I’m tough’—and that’s something I’ve heard about myself. People told Megyn she had sharp elbows, that she was hard. I’ve had people judge me and say the same things about me.”
Kelly herself also had ambivalent feelings about Ailes. When Carlson sued, she detailed a long-standing pattern of sexual abuse. Kelly knew that Ailes had been wildly inappropriate with many women—in the film, Carlson claims that Roger always said that “to get ahead, you have to give a little head.” But Kelly also regarded him as an innovative and creative genius. “Ailes was very good at his job,” Theron continued. “And he was also a mentor to many women at Fox, including Megyn. For women to be betrayed in their workplace by a mentor who is going to make your career possible is very confusing. The water is murky. I love the nuance of that in our film: We don’t tell the story of the perfect victims of Fox. We try to tell the story of the messy, emotional dynamics between boss and employee. In Bombshell, our monsters don’t always look like monsters, which is how it is in real life.”
Although the lead producer of Bombshell is Theron, both the director, Roach, and the screenwriter, Charles Randolph, are men. “With this movie, my gender was a cause of deep reflection for me,” Roach says. “Should a woman be directing Bombshell? As men, what is our collective guilt on the subject of sexual harassment?” In the end, Theron convinced him that there was value in the fact that he was asking those questions, and listening. “My decision was to let the women tell their stories,” he says. Both Roach and Randolph come from conservative backgrounds—to this day, their relatives watch Fox News—and Randolph, who grew up in an evangelical household, left college to preach the Bible in Europe. “I saw myself as James Bond for Jesus,” he said. Now the two of them are liberal, but they still have a first-hand perspective on the right-wing political world and the excesses that Fox represents. “It’s the fantasy of access to women, without responsibility,” Randolph explained. “To many men, that’s power. And Roger had that at Fox: He had these women under his control.”
Bombshell details the seismic impact of Carlson’s lawsuit at the network. “I liked that our story is a study of how women relate to a toxic environment,” says Kidman, who plays Carlson with a combination of beauty, confidence, and carefully calculated outrage. “We want to tell complicated stories about women, and that’s very difficult. The world likes clear-cut winners and losers, abusers and victims, but reality is not that simple. It’s always a little dangerous to give a predator like Ailes any measure of humanity, but to get at the problem of harassment, you have to understand how someone like Ailes manipulated these women.” Kidman paused. “And I must say, I liked putting on the Gretchen dresses. It was like wearing a suit of armor.” She smiled. “I’m allowed to like hot pink!”
Robbie, whose character has the most dramatic arc—she’s the ingenue turned accomplice turned victim—was also fascinated by how Ailes manipulated his disciples, in ways big and small. “I did rebel against the Fox dress code,” she says. “I would not put on nude hose. I said, ‘No one my age or younger would wear nude hose,’ so I said no. Do you think Roger would have fired me?”
Perhaps. The world of Fox, as depicted by Bombshell, was Ailes’s universe. He was the puppet master who propelled Kelly’s rise and then tried to stop it cold when Trump complained about her. Until his world crumbled, Ailes loved to play God. “I want to hate Roger Ailes,” Theron says, “but, as with all interesting and intense people, his personality is much harder to navigate. His need for power became a kind of malignancy that the women had to overcome. Ailes wanted blind loyalty, and the first ones to say no were Carlson and Kelly. In playing Kelly, I kept thinking, Why do we let these very egocentric men run our lives? This film is, hopefully, like taking medicine: It doesn’t answer every question, and it isn’t the cure, but hopefully it does speed the process of change.”