More than halfway through the Alexis Bloom documentary, “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” an interesting question comes to the fore – did Roger Ailes believe the stories he had Fox News peddle, or was he just in it to get an audience.
The movie offers the distinct implication that Ailes was indeed a conspiracy theorist and that he truly believed that liberals were out to destroy the country. Whether that is true or not, it is most certainly the case that Ailes was an incredibly savvy individual; that he was well aware of how to use the media to manipulate people.
Combine Ailes’s conspiracy theorist tendencies with his media savvy, throw in more than a dash of megalomania and you start to get a picture of who this man was. For liberals, this documentary paints a portrait of a terrifying individual – someone obsessed with ideas like Barack Obama actually being a Muslim and foisting these ludicrous notions off on gullible individuals willing to take any message as long as it comes from a white man or an attractive woman in a tight dress. For conservatives, Ailes is a hero, a person willing to stand up and fight back against the “liberal media,” making sure to get people like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush elected to the White House. Further, for this group, he is a man brought low for sexual indiscretions, but who still did much to be admired and for whom they can still be thankful.
In other words, both political leanings will find things to like and dislike. This is not the same as saying that Bloom’s documentary is even-handed in its assessment of the man – in telling the story of Ailes and his upbringing, it interviews far more individuals who disliked the man and saw the wrong and unforgivable in his actions, than it does those who admired him.
To move away from a “both sides” sort of narrative for a moment, it must be stated that Ailes’s treatment of women was not just reprehensible, but truly disgusting. His treatment of those around him in general and desire to control and manipulate, be it on a national level or a local one, is alarming. “Divide and Conquer” is able to trace such actions through decades and explain how it fits into a complete picture of Ailes. To walk away from the movie with the view that the individuals who accuse Ailes of such deplorable actions are lying is to wear the exact sort of blinders that Ailes himself seems to have worn, and which he utilized Fox News to put on others.
Like Ailes himself, Bloom’s documentary draws the audience in, whether they stand on the side of staring at him in disgust or lament a great man’s downfall. Everyone will be riled up about something they see and Bloom knows exactly how to unspool the tale for maximum effect. This is a movie that starts off at the Republican convention in 2016 and the crowning of Donald Trump as the GOP candidate for President, something Ailes helped make happen, while noting that the man himself was fighting his own major problems at the time. It is a perfect hook for the story and every step of the journey offers another moment to both horrify or please.
“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” is a well-researched, well-built documentary. It is compelling from start to finish, building a three dimensional look at this man who, for better or worse, shaped this nation through his work at Fox News and elsewhere. It is also sure to infuriate many, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum.
photo credit: Magnolia Pictures