The Real Story Behind 'Bombshell'

The movie focuses on the sexual harassment scandal that rocked Fox News in 2016, which exposed a misogynistic epidemic within the media empire.

Bombshell
Lionsgate

The most chilling movie of 2019 won’t be fabricated from fiction. Bombshell, which is based on the real-life sexual harassment case that rocked Fox News in 2016, will be the movie that exposes humanity at its most corrupt.

Starring Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, and John Lithgow, the film follows the women who ousted a powerful male abuser from the media company. In the end, though, his removal didn’t really come at a great price for him at all. But we’ll get into that shortly.

Before you read on about the true story that inspired this movie, you can check out the tension-filled teaser trailer below.

Roger Ailes used to be one of the most powerful men in America. As the chairman and CEO for Fox News, for 20 years he helped shape elections, promote wars, and push a conservative agenda into millions of households nationwide. He must have felt untouchable, but it only took a couple of weeks for his world to come crashing down.

Behind the scenes, Ailes (portrayed by Lithgow in Bombshell) was a creep. In 2016, more than two dozen women came forward and accused him of sexual harassment. In doing so, they exposed a misogynistic and corrupt culture at the network that extended beyond Ailes.

The first woman to step forward was Gretchen Carlson (Kidman’s role), a former Fox and Friends anchor who was subjected to demeaning comments about her figure and looks. For example, Ailes used to tell her to wear tighter outfits on the air. When she complained to supervisors about a male colleague who spoke down to her, the chairman dismissed her claims and accused her of being a man-hater. She wasn’t the only woman at the company to experience this kind of awful treatment, either.

At staff meetings, Ailes had been known to ask women to pose for him while he examined their figures. He also propositioned female employees for sexual favors. As noted by Intelligencer, he spent millions of network dollars quietly settling these harassment claims while also conducting surveillance and smear campaigns against those who risked exposing him as a monster.

These campaigns allegedly involved Ailes’ operatives following political and personal enemies around. Blogs were also set up to discredit and tarnish the reputations of those who opposed him. According to the Intelligencer report, Ailes handled his nefarious business in a 14th-floor office known as “The Black Room,” which was set up in 2011. He was also known to monitor his employees’ emails.

Carlson knew that in order to defeat Ailes, she had to gather concrete evidence against him. In 2014, she began recording his harassment incidents via a hidden iPhone she took to meetings. After a year of taping his inappropriate behavior, she had enough evidence to expose him — but it wasn’t that simple.

Carlson hired Casey Smith to handle her case. Smith had already won sexual harassment settlements for women against powerful figures, most notably in 2008 in a lawsuit involving former New Jersey Governor Donald DiFrancesco. She accepted Carlson’s case, but first they had to get around a clause in her Fox contract which mandated that employee disputes be handled internally.

There was a way around the clause, however. Instead of suing Fox, Carlson and Smith decided to sue Ailes personally, hoping that the element of surprise would prevent Fox from launching a preemptive lawsuit of their own. This led to Carlson being fired by the network in July 2016 on the day her contract expired. Afterward, they pushed their case forward and even went as far as installing special software on their devices to prevent Ailes and Fox from hacking into their IT systems.

While Smith and Carlson were wary of going up against such a powerful adversary, they received some unexpected support from within the company. After they filed their claim, six more women stepped forward accusing Ailes of sexual harassment. Furthermore, the Murdoch family, who were apparently looking for an excuse to get rid of Ailes for a long time, conducted their own private investigation into the matter.

Naturally, Ailes responded to the accusations by having Fox anchors defend him and smear his enemies on-air. He and his wife, Elizabeth (played by Connie Britton in the movie), claimed that the Murdoch sons and the liberal media were trying to persecute him. As the events coincided with the 2016 election, they said it was all part of a master plan to help Hilary Clinton become president.

During the internal investigations by the Murdoch family, more female Fox employees — including Megyn Kelly (Theron), who was being touted as the future face of the network at the time — opened up about Ailes and his awful exploits. On top of that, Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell in Bombshell) was unhappy with Ailes and the network’s strong support of Donald Trump. With the chairman proving to be a liability in more ways than one, Murdoch no longer felt that he was essential to the Fox machine.

Of course, that didn’t stop Ailes and his allies from fighting back. Elizabeth tried to have the company’s media department release racy photoshoot images of Kelly to shame her. They refused. Elsewhere, Ailes’ team leaked information to the right-wing outlet Breitbart claiming that there would be a massive employee exodus from the company if he was removed, and they would form a rival network — the proposed Trump TV — together. This didn’t happen either.

With Ailes’ departure all but confirmed, he was barred from Fox’s headquarters and locked out of his company accounts. Then, on July 21, 2016, Rupert Murdoch summoned Ailes to a meeting in which they agreed to a $40 million severance package. The agreement also prevented Ailes from joining a rival network, though he would remain an advisor to Murdoch.

Over the following days, more women spoke out about Ailes and Fox. Anchor Andrea Tantaros said that she was taken off the air after reporting her former boss, while her lawsuit compared the company to a “sex-­fueled, Playboy Mansion–like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency, and misogyny.”

In the end, Carlson agreed to an eight-figure settlement. Some of the other women who spoke out, however, received no compensation. Ailes, meanwhile, became an adviser to President Trump until his death on May 17, 2017 — just three days after his 77th birthday.

At the end of the day, Ailes got off more than lightly. He left the company with a hefty financial package and became an influential figure in the Trump campaign. Furthermore, his allies at the network (Sean Hannity, mainly) have continued to defend him, meaning that there will always be people out there who don’t take the allegations against him seriously.

The Ailes situation also prompted more women to expose the problematic culture at Fox. In 2017, Bill O’Reilly was also accused of several incidences of sexual misconduct, which led to his removal from the company and him having to pay $45 million in settlements.

Earlier this year, Fox Nation host Tyrus was also accused of sexual harassment after reportedly sending lewd texts to his colleague Britt McHenry. This one appears to have slipped under the radar, but it’s yet another incident which reveals a rotten epidemic that Fox News.

Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.