[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.]
The latest in an infinite parade of documentaries about how the hell we got here (others include “Get Me Roger Stone” and the forthcoming “Watergate: How to Stop an Out of Control President”), Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” is a clean and straightforward account of how a hemophiliac from small town Ohio grew up to become the most powerful man in media, effectively destroy the country that he claimed to love, and harass a whole lot of women along the way.
Fleet, lucid, and very watchable, the film is as ruthlessly effective and goal-oriented as its namesake, as Bloom (“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) unpacks a singular American life with plenty of color and little creativity. Her uncomplicated approach serves the purpose of a film like this: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, but when the facts become legend, you might as well just roll with them. What deeper truth Bloom mines from Ailes’ ignominious life is self-evident, but worth explicating nonetheless — Ailes and Trump (and Charles Foster Kane) are men defined by a kill-or-be-killed mentality. They’re cynical, craven men for whom power is the only object, every relationship is purely transactional, and love is a compromise they can’t understand. At least Kane had the decency to spend his final years in isolation.
“Divide and Conquer” eulogizes the late Chairman and CEO of Fox News in chronological fashion, though Bloom wrangles a charismatic array of talking heads to prevent the biography from getting boring. Ailes’ family members either declined (or weren’t invited) to be interviewed, and that begins to feel like a glaring omission as the film goes on, but Bloom is able to find plenty of insight into her subject’s formative years. The son of a severe factory foreman, Ailes — loquacious and handsome for a man who would grow up to look like a Batman villain — was raised to believe that Democratic politics were going to destroy his town. That fear was baked into his blood at a young age, and perhaps reinforced by a blood condition that meant he could die from a flesh wound.
And so, in that light, it was only natural that Roger Ailes spent most of his like on the attack. At least, that’s the argument Bloom subtly weaves through her documentary, careful not to let that kind of M. Night Shyamalan-level psychology overwhelm the story. “Divide and Conquer” follows along as Ailes lands a job at a Philadelphia local-access show, and develops a visionary understanding of the effect that television will have on the hearts and minds of the American people. He meets Richard Nixon, and impresses upon the GOP candidate how important it is to have a media advisor (“the only person I ever saw Roger hit on was Richard Nixon,” laughs one of Bloom’s interviewees). Nixon would become the first of several Presidents whom Ailes helped to install into office, as their campaign became ground zero for a media strategy that hinged on bypassing the critical press, and preying upon the fears of the nation at large. Ailes shifted the paradigm of American politics from logic to emotions, and we’ve never recovered.
Much of what happened next is already familiar to audiences of a certain age, but Bloom digs up a handful of remarkable details — and uses some extraordinary archival footage — to revitalize the story of how Ailes created the “America’s Talking” channel before joining forces with Rupert Murdoch and founding Fox News. The clips we see from those “America’s Talking” programs make for an eerie and prescient glimpse of today’s media landscape, as Ailes’ shrewd eye for “talent” led him to hire the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Oh, and also a number of attractive young women, who he would stick behind see-through desks and light from below (in order to better show off their legs). This, we learn, was right around the time that he started ruining the careers of innocent, highly capable women because they wouldn’t engage in quid pro quo sex with him; the testimony that one of these women gives Bloom is harrowing, not for its explicitness (she declined Ailes’ offer) but rather for its savagery. Ailes ended her career overnight, and her story articulates how easy it can be for a man like him to do that to someone, as well as how many sycophants and enablers are complicit in allowing it to happen.
And then, we hit the big time: Fox News, which Ailes co-founded — of course — as an act of revenge against his former employers. Thanks to Bill Clinton and history’s most infamous cigar, the fledgling network was fed all the chum it needed to become an instant force of nature, and the rest was history. While you can’t help but feel as though Bloom skirts over far too much of the Fox News phenomenon, and how it’s greased the wheels of hatred and fear-mongering for more than 20 years, her decision to pivot towards less familiar terrain results in the film’s most telling passages.
When Ailes was at the height of his power, he bought a house in the autumnal suburban hamlet of Cold Springs, New York. And, just to make his presence known, he also bought the tiny weekly newspaper that had been serving the community for more than a century. And then, despite being one of the most powerful figures in all of America, he went to war against the local government, determined to make this blue town run red with the blood of those who stood in his way; the documentary’s most damning and unbelievable scene finds Ailes bringing his big city lawyer to a meeting in a quiet elementary school and trying to bully the town supervisor into getting what he wanted.
It’s the sociopathic behavior of a man who saw even the smallest conflict as a blood feud, and only knew how to express his desires through subjugation. As is almost always the case with men like him, Ailes’ sexual aberrance was motivated by power more than pleasure, and any resistance to his overtures only seemed to confirm the validity of his worldview. Of course, as we now know, this would ultimately be Ailes’ undoing, and Bloom doesn’t need to devote much time to re-explaining his pitiful ouster from the company he conceived. But “Divide and Conquer” illustrates the similarities between Ailes and Trump so well that the documentary’s happy ending can’t help but leave behind a queasy aftertaste: Ailes may be dead, but he’s still the most powerful man in the world.
Magnolia will release the film in theaters on Friday, December 7.