By Michael Sandlin.
Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer could have easily been conceived as a shameless liberal hit job on an easy target: far-right fake news guru and prolific sexual harasser Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and the head bully-boy behind the modern Trumpian Republican political class. Yet this documentary actually turns out to be more “fair and balanced” (Fox’s long-discontinued motto) than Ailes’s 24-hour cable-TV misinformation channel could ever be. Deeply influenced by his liberal-fearing (but pro-union) worker father, Ailes would eventually make a fortune from the potent combination of inherited hatred of left-wingers with an intense “fear of annihilation” that drove him to carry a gun at all times. Fox News, established in 1996 from the ashes of Ailes’s initial more innocent early-1990s TV venture America’s Talking (which, ironically, became liberal-leaning MSNBC), would become a national media megaphone for his own right-wing fantasies. His twisted genius lay in the ability to package and sell his own paranoid political delusions, wild conspiracy theories, and chimerical enemies as believable “alternative” facts to a frighteningly large segment of the American public.
As Bloom’s film will confirm, by the 2000s, half of America was firmly in thrall to Ailes’s own personal fears of atheists, socialists, immigrants, Middle Easterners, black presidents, gay terrorists, and perhaps most of all, Clintons. And these fears were stoked night after night on Fox News by an on-air roster of whack-job suburban-dad alarmists like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all supported by a phalanx of shock-blonde fembot commentators chosen by Ailes, not surprisingly, for maximum sex appeal.
Most of the talking heads that Bloom initially rolls out are former Fox employees, many of whom still seem proud of the dirty work they did for Ailes. In fact, the first half of Divide and Conquer could almost qualify as a halfway sympathetic portrait. Ailes is presented as a self-made publicity maven with humble beginnings. His entry-level gig as an assistant producer on the Mike Douglas Show in the mid-1960s would be the unlikely springboard to a career as self-styled Republican image sculptor. And he would go on to serve as media advisor for some of the worst American presidents in modern history: from Nixon, Ronnie Reagan, and George W. Bush, to King Dumpster Fire himself.
Beginning with Richard Nixon in 1968, he took on naturally unappealing humanoid political elites and gave them a folksy regular-guy media makeover. At one point in the film we witness the transformation of one of Ailes major clients in the 1980s: the US Congress’s longtime chief obstructionist, Senator Mitch McConnell. The geeky McConnell became a conservative star after Ailes produced a promotional ad that magically rebranded the senatorial candidate as an outdoorsy rube in a rowboat. (Never mind that sheltered college-boy McConnell had never even been on a fishing trip in his life.) Ailes was also the mastermind behind the infamous racially charged Willie Horton ad, which practically handed the 1988 Presidential election to Poppy Bush. The vintage clip in the film where Ailes shrugs off the blatantly racist ad is almost forward-looking in its relationship to how Trump-era right wingers so easily deflect accusations of racism today: make an overtly racist statement, then simply insist that it wasn’t meant to be racist.
But the second half of the documentary takes a noticeable turn against its central figure, although not via any sort of easy subjective value judgments. Ailes is taken down simply by cold, hard, irrefutable facts. Bloom coolly picks apart the mythical media-mogul figure of Ailes like a lawyer presenting evidence in a courtroom proceeding. We begin meeting onscreen, one by one, the victims of Ailes’s creepily aggressive sexual advances. Through firsthand testimony from a number of women sexually harassed by Ailes, Bloom methodically builds an open-and-shut case for Ailes as serial sex predator. One former prospective employee of Ailes’s media empire is visibly shaken onscreen while recalling her degrading experience with the big boss man in the back of a limo: “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys,” he tells her. Long story short, the interviewee refused Ailes’s quid pro quo offer of a high-paying position in exchange for sex. Next thing you know, she’s on an industry-wide no-hire list.
The last straw, of course, was Ailes’s sexual antagonism of Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson. The former Miss America walked away with a cool $20 million in settlement cash after filing a harassment lawsuit over her slimy boss’s unwanted advances. Ailes’s sexual shenanigans finally became a publicity nightmare for Fox (bearing in mind that the network had already weathered aging horndog Bill O’Reilly’s multiple charges of sexual harassment). In the end, even Fox’s amoral scumbag owner Rupert Murdoch couldn’t stomach the dirty-grandpa antics of his prized pupil any longer: he fired Ailes in 2017. Fittingly, Ailes would not survive the #MeToo age, unceremoniously croaking that same year. Ailes’s brainchild Fox News will now go down in history as having paid out a total of $163 million in sexual harassment hush money.
This is not to say Divide and Conquer doesn’t have its blind spots – it would have been a bonus if Bloom had delved deeper into the lunatic fringe Fox News subculture and the network’s shameless toadying to Donald J. Trump in grooming him for the presidency. Then again, you’ve got documentaries like Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed (2004) that offer a broader critique of Fox News and the Murdoch Empire and The Brainwashing of My Dad (2015) that looks at the damaging effects of Fox’s far-right propaganda on the average human brain. Nevertheless, Bloom’s well-assembled film would make a fine Christmas cheer companion piece to Get Me Roger Stone (2017), an equally effective takedown of another defiantly corrupt right-wing cartoon villain.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.