Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes ★★★

”It's easy to make somebody into a monster. It's harder to see that you're on that path too.”

Kingmaker, advisor, strategist, media mogul, serial abuser. “Everybody has an agenda,” Roger Ailes said, including apparently himself.

Filmmaker Alexis Bloom -- co-director of the excellent Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds -- brings the story of Roger Ailes, reviled founder of Fox News and Republican strategist and donor whose career crashed down in flames over sexual assault accusations. Hated, loved, yet unquestionably influential and powerful, Ailes played a part in some of the worst parts of politics and media that nonetheless have cemented in America for the foreseeable future.

Bloom traces Ailes’ life from conservative white-bred Warren, Ohio -- son of “a union man who hated unions” and who purposefully dropped his son after asking him to jump in his arms by saying “trust no one” (also, like everything Ailes says, a lie) -- as he lived his whole life in fear. No, not in a figurative way, literally: diagnosed with hemophilia, which even 60 years ago was not a sure bet for a long life. However, yes of course the metaphor is clear, and the documentary quickly cuts to angry Fox News talking heads spewing homophobia, Islamophobia, and general hateful nonsense. You get a lot of that in this film.

Ailes worked his way through media to producer of The Mike Douglas Show, featuring talk and actors and politicians. It's here that he met Richard Nixon and his life changed forever, becoming the formal advisor to Nixon as his political comeback began in earnest in the mid-60s, leading to his ascension to the presidency in 1968. From that point on, when Ailes said “jump,” the Republican Party said “over how many oppressed minorities?”

The film follows Ailes’ turn to kingmaker for Congress and the presidency, and sprinkles in claim after claim of abuse, harassment, womanizing, and intimidation of female coworkers. Of course, it was the establishment of Fox News as a new network in the late 1990s that really vaulted his power into the stratosphere, headed by NewsCorp chairman Rupert Murdoch. “Fair and Balanced” went the tagline, far from true of course, with nearly every topic and lightning rod issue guided by Ailes. O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck, and all your fat dumb uncle's favorites. They're all here, and every conspiracy theory covered by the network was carefully orchestrated by Ailes himself.

While the film is a wealth of information, and peppered with dozens of interviews with former associates and journalists, Divide and Conquer does fall a little into the easy tactic of simply “he did this” and “he made this happen,” which doesn't make for a unique documentary. The detail and insight is as good as you'll find, especially the candor of the women who talk about his propositions and sexual predilections, but it is just that in a linear way. Admittedly though, some of the details were chilling, including Ailes’ protection of other abusers.

It's another edition in the plethora of “how the fuck did we get here” documentaries -- which I like! -- that will keep coming as long as people are in denial and disbelief about, well, how the fuck we got here. But does it offer any answers or resolution? Kind of: his career went down in flames from sexual assault claims, and then he died. Hm. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Added to The Best Documentary Films of 2019.

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