The dumpster fire that is the modern political discourse can be directly linked to the rise of Roger Ailes. The former Fox News chairman went from daytime talk show producer to Richard Nixon‘s media guru, which got him his foot in the door. From there, he went on to change the world. The effect of that is the focus of “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” a documentary with a lot to say. Playing at the New York Film Festival, it thankfully doesn’t shy away from Ailes’ downfall. He doesn’t come off as (upsettingly) well as Steve Bannon did in “American Dharma,” which is a relief. This doc does have more of an agenda, yes. That being said, it thankfully has more of a point of view.
“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” only starts as a profile of how the man came to sort of rule the world. Just seeing that version of Roger Ailes would be incomplete. The third act of this movie goes all in on the sexual assault and harassment that is hinted at throughout. The doc ends up not just informing about how Fox News and the modern shit show of political news came about. It also, quite fittingly, gives us a look at a sex criminal who actually went down for his sins. At this very upsetting moment in history, that comes as a necessary relief.
Largely, the film follows Roger Ailes chronologically as he goes from a child to the bigwig he was, almost until the end. In the early days, a chance encounter with Nixon while working on “The Mike Douglas Show” got his foot in the door. That first success, helping to get Nixon elected, made him an almost instant kingmaker. We see how politicians up and down the ballot, including Mitch McConnell, owe Ailes their political life. From there, the middle part sees Ailes get into media, first with the America’s Talking network, and then, of course, with Fox News. That’s when he truly became the giant that the conservative world saw him as.
The final portion of “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” gives voice to Ailes’ victims. The survivors of his attempted assaults get to have many of the final words. Gretchen Carlson is one, of course, but plenty of lesser known women are allowed to speak their peace. It has the important effect of reminding even fans of the man’s Frankenstein television channel that its creator engaged in some repugnant behavior. Frankly, it would be irresponsible of the doc not to have addressed this. Ailes goes down for indefensible actions. Quite frankly, he deserved his downfall.
Director Alexis Bloom makes “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” reflect its subject matter. It’s a ruthless and determined film, confident in its vision and ready to beat you into submission. Bloom knows the story she wants to tell, as well as how she wants to tell it. She dives right in and never fully demonizes or humanizes Ailes. Bloom just allows him to be the man he was. Interestingly, Bloom spends very little time on his death, but does leave us in a haunting place. Ailes may be gone, but when the President obsessively watches the man’s network, he might as well still be alive.
Fans of political documentaries won’t be surprised by the details of “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Instead, you’ll see a story told with a deft hand. Ailes was a monster, but it’s worth spending time in his creepy orbit in order to try and understand him. The fact that the movie mostly succeeds is a testament to Bloom’s filmmaking. NYFF has a solid political doc here, one well worth looking out for.