Film review: Divide and Conquer

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, December 14th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, Megan Basham reviews a documentary about the man who founded Fox News.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Near the end of the documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, a political consultant who once worked alongside the media mogul expresses her disappointment that he “used his talent and media savvy to build something that drove a wedge.”

This closing line, coupled with the title, highlights a fundamental flaw in the film. It takes for granted that we already agree with its main argument that Ailes was the architect of America’s deep political divide rather than just a visionary who saw a way to ride the elevator to the penthouse floor.

At the outset, director Alexis Bloom paints a portrait of a man with incredible talent and foresight. Ailes’s rise from a blue-collar Ohio kid to a political kingmaker through the campaigns of Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan can’t help but inspire even when you get the idea it’s not supposed to.

FILM CLIP: I think that Roger was a kind of genius in the sense that he created something that didn’t exist before.

But it also makes it easy to see how the well-documented cockiness of the once-handsome young man could swell on a tide of money and power to sexual entitlement in his later years.

Even though it doesn’t examine any allegations countless news outlets haven’t already covered, the film does its best work in detailing Ailes’s harassment and intimidation of women who worked for him. Only a few speak about their experiences on camera, but the quid-pro-quo stories have an all-too familiar ring of truth. Especially as they’re bolstered by the testimony of Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, Andrea Tantaros, Julie Roginsky, Laurie Dhue, and others who don’t appear in the film.

Diving deeper into exactly what kind of power structure allows men like Ailes to carry on such abuse would have provided both a great film and a great public service. But apparently this was too small an ambition for Divide and Conquer. Instead it sets its sights on turning standard-issue hubris and debauchery into super-villainy.

When one low-level producer claims FOX staff commonly call certain kinds of reporting “riling up the crazies,” you start to suspect you’re not getting a measured account anymore. It fits too neatly with the Mother Jones/Huffington Post version of FOX to bear credulity. It’s also never corroborated. Later in the film another producer smirks about Ailes’s desire for increased security around his office, saying, “He was convinced that gay terrorists were going to come attack him.”

Yet the rest of the documentary argues Ailes was exactly the sort of defining political figure enemies might want to assassinate.

FILM CLIP: Roger lived his whole life in fear. A physical, real fear of bleeding to death. He had hemophilia diagnosed when he was about four years old. But he was a survivor. And he operated fearlessly, like a lot of people who have real fears often do. And I think this allowed him to understand the fears of other people.  

Bloom can’t seem to settle on which way she wants it. Was Ailes a delusional paranoiac? Or was he a mastermind whose groundbreaking success would naturally make him a target for violence?

Similar small moments—like speculating that an obese hemophiliac died not because of a fall but because he couldn’t survive being fired from FOX News—seem ironically part of the political nastiness the movie claims to decry.

Professionally packaged as Divide and Conquer may be, anyone with an iota of discernment is going to question whether Ailes was really doing something uniquely dastardly by trying to present his candidates and his ideology in the most favorable light.

FILM CLIP: In your estimation, is television the single most important factor in a winning political campaign? Let me put it this way, I don’t believe anyone will be elected to major public office again—including mayors of big cities—without the skillful use of television. And that skillful use, is that an illumination of the issues or an emotional sell of the man involved? I think both.

It might be easier to lay blame for our national rancor at Ailes’s feet if Bloom had made even a slight effort to figure out why such a large swath of Americans felt unserved by their press for so long that it paved the way for FOX’s meteoric rise. To paraphrase one Ailes obituary, we had a divided country long before FOX News. What was largely undivided was television journalism.

American audiences have yet to see any major films on other recently deposed predators like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, or Matt Lauer. In a few months, Ailes will have been the subject of three. It’s an imbalance the man himself would have known how to exploit.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(AP Photo/Jim Cooper, File) In this Sept. 29, 2006 file photo, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes poses at Fox News in New York. A new documentary, “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” directed by Alexis Bloom, deconstructs the rise and fall of the late head of Fox News Channel. 

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