AFI Fest Review: Meet the Man Behind the Modern American Nightmare in ‘Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes’

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Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

For over 20 years Fox News has been a propaganda outlet for the conservative movement in America, playing it fast and loose with the facts. The network riles up conservatives in a frenzy of fear and rage while liberals are often left aghast at the organization’s indifference towards objective facts. For the most part, outrage directed at Fox News focused on its on air talent, be it Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, or Tucker Carlson. But the driving force behind the cable news behemoth was rarely in front of the camera – Roger Ailes. Director Alexis Bloom brings the story of the man behind the network that has sowed division in America with the biographical documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. Bloom’s film is an illuminating documentary, well-crafted and timely, but what often stands out about the film is what it doesn’t feel the need to say aloud.

While it’s primarily a biography of Roger Ailes, Divide and Conquer is really a movie about the power of fear. Starting during his youth in Warren, Ohio, Roger Ailes learned the power of fear from two parts of his life – his demanding and abusive father and his diagnosis with hemophilia. It’s within that stern upbringing that his father instills within him a deeply held sense of conservative beliefs that were impervious to contradiction, such as his father being a union man who despised unions. It’s in these two aspects of Ailes’ life that you can see where he was shaped by fear and was able to realize its power as a motivating tool in politics.

Striking out professionally, Ailes began working on The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. It was an influential daytime talk show which had an array of movie stars, directors, and politicians on the air. It’s after scheming his way up to producer that Roger Ailes would meet the future president Richard Milhouse Nixon. Ailes corners Nixon alone and implores the notorious politician to hire him as a media consultant, and with that Roger Ailes made his first step into the world of conservative media. One of the more fascinating documents presented in Bloom’s film is a memo from the Nixon White House with Ailes handwriting scrawled throughout calling for a type of Republican television where GOP politicians could espouse their ideas without facing any critical questions from the press. It’s a plan that never came to be in its initially proposed form but within the document you can see the origins of what would become Fox News.

After the Nixon administration, Ailes struck out with his own company producing television ads for conservative candidates. His clients included Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Mitch McConnell, and his clients often won. The media magnate of the Republican Party was also behind one of the most infamous campaign ads in American history – the Willie Horton ad. Long seen as a horrific example of racial demagoguery (unequaled until a certain horrific ad during this year’s midterms), the Willie Horton ad was explicit in employing racial panic to smear Michael Dukakis, basically positing that electing Dukakis will unleash a hoard of black criminals out of prison to rape and murder your family. Ailes denied the ad’s racist overtones but nobody could deny the ad worked. Within that racial demagoguery lied another key to the future success of Fox News – white panic.

But before starting a news network that would inflame racial tensions and serve as a platform for the Republican Party, Ailes strived to be a television mogul and was given the opportunity when NBC launched a new all talk network America’s Talking. However, this dream was short-lived and Ailes was exiled from the network once a deal was struck with Microsoft and MSNBC was created. Those close to Ailes recall his rage at this revelation and his swearing for vengeance. It’d take a little while but eventually Ailes would team up with Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch and create Fox News. Vengeance was his.

Bloom’s film doesn’t really concern itself with media criticism of Fox News and their use of outrage as a motivating factor for tuning in the next day. Instead she paints a vivid portrait of a man motivated by fear and who was able to turn that fear into a political weapon he could aim at whomever he saw fit. His ego ballooned as Fox saw its rating climbed, going as far as to begin to interfere in the local politics of the sleepy little town he built his massive estate. Friends from the past recall how Roger Ailes became a different person, a tale of how power can corrupt. It’d almost be an American tragedy if his empire wasn’t built upon hate and pain.

It’s the downfall of Roger Ailes where most people learned his name. In the halls of Fox News a culture of sexual harassment ran rampant with Ailes being one of the worst offenders. Murdoch turned a blind eye as the advertising revenue was rolling in. Ailes, in turn, turned a blind eye to the multiple allegations against star host Bill O’Reilly, as the fiery O’Reilly was fiercely loyal to Ailes. Eventually, Ailes and O’Reilly would be ousted by the network when the weight of the allegations and the payouts from lawsuits became too much for Murdoch. Amazingly, Bloom is able to get interviews with members of the PR firm brought in to do damage control for Ailes, and they are frank about his defiant attitude amplified by his ego. They say this is the first time they’ve ever spoken out about a client, though they’re clear to state there were no contracts, no non-disclosure agreements, or payments made. Within a year of being removed from Fox News, Ailes died from his hemophilia following a fall.

Divide and Conquer presents the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News in a truly fascinating way. There’s no narration to draw these parallels, so Bloom often has interviews with Ailes or O’Reilly opposite Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, two men removed from their positions of power after a series of credible allegations against them. It’s a choice that clearly illustrates that the culture of sexual harassment wasn’t just at Fox News but never comes across as some kind of strained diatribe. The film respects your intelligence enough to allow you do draw most of these connections and anyone half informed should be able to piece together everything the film is saying.

Roger Ailes has died but his legacy lives on. Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes ends on the most chilling aspect of Ailes’ complex legacy – the current administration. The vacuous hosts of Fox & Friends, the network’s morning show, wonder if the president is watching their inane banter and ask if the commander-in-chief would flash the lights off and on if he’s watching. The lights follow the instructions of the television hosts and we’re left with the realization that Roger Ailes has left us with a fractured nation where objective truth has become obsolete and led by a half-literate racist who obsessively watches cable news. That’s the true legacy of Roger Ailes and Alexis Bloom has crafted the documentary that traces how one man left behind so much misery.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

An intelligent, well-crafted biographical documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes examines the life of the man behind Fox News but also crafts a compelling narrative about the political power of fear.

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