The movie, opening Friday, has provoked crossfire between Carlson’s and Kelly’s camps about how the Ailes saga actually came about. Carlson’s supporters say the movie insufficiently credits Carlson and inflates Kelly’s role; people close to Kelly counter that it more or less accurately portrays the real sequence of events.
Carlson, a former host of “Fox & Friends,” filed her now-famous harassment suit against Ailes in early July 2016. Within two weeks, Ailes, who had built Fox News into a money-gushing powerhouse, was gone in a corporate coup engineered by two bitter Ailes rivals, Lachlan and James Murdoch, the sons of Fox co-founder Rupert Murdoch.
What happened in between makes up the heart of the movie and the source of tension between Team Carlson and Team Kelly.
The film suggests that Kelly (played by Charlize Theron, in a remarkable take on the real anchor) was the key figure, coming forward with her own story about Ailes’s harassment of her 10 years earlier and then rallying women at Fox News to do the same. Her actions, the film implies, turned Carlson’s long-shot lawsuit into a triumphant revolt against one of the most formidable figures in television news.
That Kelly dropped a bomb on Ailes is undisputed; she told Lachlan Murdoch about Ailes days after Carlson filed her suit and later spoke to investigators hired by the Murdochs to look into complaints about Ailes.
Several women interviewed for this story say Kelly was instrumental in getting them to tell their own stories to the investigator. “Megyn had the moral character to do the right thing, for herself and for other women at Fox,” says a former Fox employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she signed a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of settling her harassment claims against Ailes and Fox.
But did Kelly really provide the shove that dislodged Ailes?
Carlson’s camp says the real catalyst was Carlson (played by Nicole Kidman), who publicly took on Ailes after she was demoted and then fired at Fox, setting in motion all that followed.
“There was one woman who jumped off the cliff without a parachute, who had very little chance of success and almost a guarantee of failure . . . and that woman was Gretchen Carlson,” said Julie Roginsky, a former Fox News contributor who filed her own harassment suit against Ailes and then co-president Bill Shine in 2017.
While meaning no disrespect for Kelly’s role, she said Carlson “paved the way for other women to have the courage to speak up.”
Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, also disputes the Kelly-as-hero depiction.
“The person who was the bravest was Gretchen, not Megyn,” says Smith, who has seen the film (Smith is played in it by Robin Weigert). “Megyn Kelly never publicly revealed that she was harassed by Roger Ailes while Gretchen’s case was pending. She never expressed any support for Gretchen, either. It was Gretchen who took the leap. To portray it otherwise is just wrong.”
Carlson said she hasn’t seen the movie and declined to comment for this article. Kelly said she would make a public statement about the movie “soon” but declined further comment.
But people close to Kelly are animated in their defense of her role in Ailes’s demise. They say that until she became involved, women at Fox were terrified of challenging Ailes, and Carlson’s lawsuit did little to prompt others to speak up.
In her 2016 memoir, “Settle for More,” Kelly said she refused to issue any statements for or against Ailes in the wake of Carlson’s lawsuit. When her reluctance to join “Team Roger” — as Ailes loyalists dubbed themselves — became noticeable, Ailes tried to force her hand: He engineered news stories, attributed to anonymous “Fox insiders,” that said she was being “selfish” for not defending him, she wrote.
Kelly eventually told Lachlan Murdoch that Ailes had harassed her when she was a fledgling reporter in Washington years earlier. Murdoch then brought in an outside law firm, Paul Weiss Rifkind, to investigate allegations against Ailes. Kelly also spoke to the investigators.
Within days, Kelly persuaded a colleague, meteorologist Janice Dean, to speak to the Paul Weiss team about Ailes, according to Dean’s memoir, “Mostly Sunny,” published in March. Dean took it from there, according to her book.
“Then I did something very risky,” she wrote. “I reached out to my female coworkers who I knew had a Roger story and asked if I could come to see them in their offices to talk. One by one I told them my experiences with the boss, how even though I was risking my career I told the lawyers at Paul Weiss my uncomfortable experiences with Mr. Ailes. If we all went in and shared our stories, it could make a difference in the future for women at this company and elsewhere. We could all make a change somehow. I talked to them in person and on the phone. I listened to their stories and cried with them, reminding them that there is strength in numbers and we were all in this together.” (Dean, who remains friendly with Kelly, declined to be interviewed).
In “Bombshell,” the Kelly character approaches colleagues and former colleagues to spur them to action. One of the climactic scenes involves Kelly and a tearful Fox producer named Kayla (a composite character played by co-star Margot Robbie), who confesses that she traded sex with Ailes for a promotion. At Kelly’s urging, Kayla finds the courage to turn on Ailes.
The movie’s director, Jay Roach, said he tried to reflect the contributions of both Carlson and Kelly to the Ailes story. He praised both women, as well as others who spoke up, for their courage in doing so. “I believe the film authentically reflects the contributions of the women who dared to speak truth to power and toppled a serial sexual abuser who was one of the most powerful titans in media,” he said in an email.
People close to Kelly privately suggest another theory: that both Carlson and Kelly were pawns in a larger power play by Lachlan and James Murdoch. The movie hints at this — that Carlson’s lawsuit gave the brothers a pretext to initiate a plan to remove Ailes, with whom they had feuded for years, and Kelly provided valuable evidence against him. In fact, Lachlan Murdoch encouraged Kelly to speak to the Paul Weiss investigators, who compiled the dossier against Ailes. (Fox News referred questions to its parent company, Fox Corp., which did not respond to a request for comment.)
Carlson settled her lawsuit with Fox for $20 million about six weeks after the Murdochs kicked out Ailes. Roginsky settled her litigation for an undisclosed sum in 2017. She and Carlson are co-founders of Lift Our Voices, an organization that seeks to stop companies from using nondisclosure agreements to cover up instances of workplace harassment and discrimination. Both women signed NDAs to settle their lawsuits.
Given the simmering hostilities between Carlson’s and Kelly’s camps, one scene in the movie seems to ring true. After Ailes’s firing, Kelly’s character passes Carlson as she sits at a table inside a Manhattan restaurant. The two women exchange no words, and merely gaze frostily at each other before turning away.