“Bombshell” exploded into the awards race last week, leading the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations with four nods, including best ensemble, actress (Charlize Theron) and supporting actress (Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman).
The drama (in theaters now in New York and Los Angeles, expanding nationwide Friday) goes behind the scenes at Fox News in 2016. It chronicles the efforts of a group of women – including on-the-outs host Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) and star anchor Megyn Kelly – to expose a culture of misogyny, leading to the ouster of Machiavellian CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who was accused of sexual harassment by more than 20 women.
Fox News spokesperson Caley Cronin declined to comment on the film to USA TODAY beyond confirming that “Bombshell” producers “never reached out to Fox News during any part of the production.”
The film was directed by Jay Roach (“Trumbo”) and written by Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”), who breaks down what’s fact, fiction and somewhere in between.
Is Margot Robbie’s character a real person?
Robbie plays an ambitious, wide-eyed staffer named Kayla Pospisil. A lifelong Fox News fanatic and young evangelical (“I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space,” she says), Kayla soon catches the eye of Ailes, who promises to promote her to on-air talent in exchange for sexual favors.
Although Kayla is a fictional character, her experiences of harassment are drawn from interviews Randolph and Roach conducted with ex-Fox News staffers (some of whom violated their non-disclosure agreements to speak with filmmakers).
“What happens inside of Roger’s office is based on the stories of three women we had access to,” Randolph says. The rest is pulled from Randolph’s evangelical upbringing. “Her being ideologically fervent like a dedicated Republican, but a little sexually fluid and utterly morally sincere, that’s based more on women in my life.”
‘I want my voice back’:Gretchen Carlson calls for change on big ‘Bombshell’ day
Is Kate McKinnon’s character fictional, too?
The “Saturday Night Live” favorite is a scene-stealer as Kayla’s savvy co-worker Jess Carr, a closeted lesbian and liberal who has complicated feelings about working at a network that preaches against her values and lifestyle.
Jess was “all made up,”Randolph says. “I wanted to show the bystander narrative. Megyn’s story is the story of someone who comes to discover she is complicit by virtue of the institutional norms and her ability to manipulate them in the predation of a younger generation of women. Likewise with Kayla: Her willingness to look the other way creates this dynamic, and she realizes at the end that it affects herself.”
‘You could do worse, right?’ Megyn Kelly approves of Charlize Theron’s ‘Bombshell’ casting
Did someone actually poison Megyn Kelly?
The film begins with an anxious but steely Megyn en route to moderate the first debate of the Republican primary campaign. She accepts a cup of coffee offered by her driver, only to fall violently ill before the debate is about to begin. Rattled, she later relays the incident to Roger, wondering aloud whether it was nerves or if the man tampered with her drink.
The scene is lifted directly from Kelly’s 2016 memoir “Settle for More,” although the journalist refuted inferences by the New York Times and others that she was poisoned, tweeting that she contracted a “stomach virus” before the debate. But “Bombshell” leaves the circumstances around her mystery illness intentionally vague.
“Roger said, ‘How dare you have a cup of coffee from a guy you don’t know. What are you, crazy?’ ” Randolph says. “Megyn has a good ear for absurdist details.”
Did Roger Ailes consult Rudy Giuliani for legal advice?
“Bombshell” is a who’s who of famous faces, including Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”) as Rupert Murdoch, Allison Janney as Ailes’ legal counsel Susan Estrich, and Connie Britton (“Nashville”) as Ailes’ wife, Beth. Then there’s “Mad About You” star Richard Kind, who portrays Ailes’ longtime friend and confidante Rudy Giuliani. The embattled Ailes asks the politician/attorney how to handle the fallout of his sexual harassment allegations.
“Ailes had three different lawyers who we let Giuliani stand in for,” Randolph says. “It shows the degree in which Roger was one of the drivers of the Republican establishment. If you wanted to be a Republican public intellectual, all avenues went through Roger Ailes’ office, and that mattered in terms of his ability to prey on young people who had aspirations.”
Was Ailes really known as ‘the legs man’?
The film shows a competitive work environment at Fox News for female anchors and producers, many of whom rarely spoke or befriended each other. (Kelly and Carlson, for instance, only share the screen once in passing in an elevator – true to real life, where they worked different shifts and “almost never interacted,” Randolph says.)
“Bombshell” also illustrates Ailes’ predatory behavior: asking women to spin in front of him during meetings, and demanding that on-air talent wear short skirts to show off their legs. Such scenes were drawn from Kelly’s book, as well as Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 Ailes biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room” and Sarah Ellison’s 2016 expose for Vanity Fair, Randolph says.
“All the women who filed complaints about him who have gone public have been really brave in articulating specifically what happened to them,” Randolph says.
The film’s most chilling scene is a private meeting between Ailes and Kayla when he pressures her to lift her skirt. The camera lingers on Kayla, near tears, as he orders her to inch it higher and higher, revealing her underwear. By letting the abuse play out in real time, Randolph hopes male viewers, in particular, will feel uncomfortable but also feel greater empathy for victims.
“When you’re in the room and you appreciate the intonations and context of it, you can see how it could be utterly life-changing and maddening and complicated for a young woman,’ ” Randolph says.