There’s no way you don’t come out from watching Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, the latest by director Alexis Bloom (Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), and not feel more than a little dirty. Whether it’s his creation of the Fox News network; or the media advice he gave people like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes; or the countless allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced in the months leading up to his death in 2017, it’s undeniable that the influential media mogul Roger Ailes restructured the American political climate to such a degree that a man like our current president could get elected by simply being a loud, brash, fear-mongering creature of pure ego.
Divide and Conquer is a painstakingly thorough look at Ailes entire life, during which he lived as a hemophiliac growing up in small town Ohio, keeping him at a physical distance from his parents, especially his mother, who blamed herself for his ailment. The film not only builds up the Ailes legend (mainly by using excerpts from his autobiography) but does enough research to tear down some of the self-created mythology that Ailes constructed around himself to make his life and works seem more profound. It walks us through his more harmless years as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” which put him in contact with not only entertainers and authors, but politicians like Nixon, whom Ailes approached to serve as a media consultant, a title Ailes apparently invented in the era when television was becoming the most important media tool in politics.
With deft precision, director Bloom interrupts the flow of the Ailes life-story narrative to feature testimonies from a handful of women with stories to tell about how Ailes approached them for sex in exchange for a job or promotion (the word “transactional” comes up more than once), and how, in many cases, he effectively tanked their careers when they rebuked him. One woman quoted him as saying, “If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to lay with the big boys.” The cumulative effect of this editing is that just when you’re on the verge of being even moderately impressed with Ailes’ achievements and influence, you are given a chilling reminder of the lives he casually destroyed to get there.
Divide and Conquer also takes time to discuss his life in the small town of Cold Spring, New York, where he and his wife Beth purchased both a mansion and the local newspaper and immediately turned each into battle zones in the local community. His need to own and control everything is obsessive, and it eventually led to a paranoid state that permeated Fox News and made it the birthplace for conspiracy theories and enemy creation. Part cautionary tale, part Citizen Kane-style biography, the film is the perfect telling of how power corrupts the soul and warps the mind to the point where it becomes cliche. Which in no way takes away from its impact on the world at large.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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