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Chronicling the rise and fall of former Fox News chieftain Roger Ailes, one of the first major media figures to be toppled by the ongoing tsunami of sexual harassment allegations, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes gains extra newsworthy traction with the growing profile of the #MeToo movement. The South Africa-born Alexis Bloom’s damning documentary is a competent but conventional affair, highly watchable but low on fresh angles or bombshell revelations. World premiered in Toronto last week, it has been bought by Magnolia, who plan a theatrical run ahead of its broadcast launch on A+E. Meanwhile, this timely Trump-ian tale of sleazy old white men abusing their patriarchal power will generate healthy festival buzz, making its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival in early October.
Blending new interviews with extensive archive clips, Divide and Conquer mostly covers material that casual observers of U.S. media and politics will already know. A sometime producer for Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets), who serves as executive producer here, Bloom at least deserves credit for getting her film out first ahead of a forthcoming deluge. Currently in the pipeline is a seven-part Showtime miniseries starring Russell Crowe as Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, and Jay Roach’s feature about the female Fox hosts who exposed him, Fair and Balanced, which is set to co-star Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie.
Bloom frames Ailes as a Charles Foster Kane figure, tracking his journey from all-American boyhood in a Midwestern factory town to ambitious TV producer to Republican party kingmaker. In the process, she risks falling for the late news mogul’s own Kane-like myth-making by overstating his importance in American history. Sure, Ailes helped steer Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes and one Trump into the White House, but equally slick media advisors also aided the Democrat side, sometimes with greater success. It should be possible to criticize his methods and ideology without exaggerating his Machiavellian powers. “Roger is more important than America” is a mantra that one of the film’s interviewees recalls, with tongue in cheek, but at times the doc seems to take this risible claim literally.
Divide and Conquer is disappointingly light on key interviewees with first-hand insights. This is presumably because Fox insiders are unlikely to air their dirty laundry in a critical documentary by a liberal director, but also because the female employees paid off over sexual harassment allegations are bound by nondisclosure agreements. Bloom wrings a few gems from old college friends of Ailes, crisis management consultants who briefly advised him and cautiously repentant Fox escapees like Glenn Beck. But there are no family members, no close colleagues, no ex-wives, no Murdoch dynasty reps. Nobody who knows where the bodies are buried, basically.
Given her limited access, Bloom is strong on examples of Ailes openly offering career advancement in return for sexual favors, unearthing cases from decades before recent explosive revelations by Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly. One interviewee recalls how her rise through the ranks was instantly, permanently blocked by Ailes after she declined a transactional sex deal. Another recalls being told, “if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.” If that sounds like a line from a really lame porn movie, it almost certainly is.
More shocking than this cold-blooded bluntness is how recklessly brazen Ailes was in his attempts at sexual coercion. With his immense wealth, he surely could have found more clandestine methods to satisfy his urges. Perhaps he believed his power and privilege would protect him forever. Then again, was this lifelong risk-taker and provocateur trying, on some subconscious level, to get caught? Divide and Conquer is low on persuasive psychological detail, but it is striking just how pitiful and needy Ailes appears when the curtain is finally pulled back, more The Wizard of Oz than Citizen Kane.
Bloom and Gibney never find a Rosebud moment to explain how Ailes ended up such a world-class douchebag. They cite his stern father, his failed tap-dancing ambitions and his hemophilia, a factor in his death last year, as motivating forces behind his repellent behavior. Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not. The film’s most telling subplot actually has nothing to do with big-city sleaze or right-wing propaganda. After Ailes and his wife move into a huge mansion in Cold Spring, New York, he buys out the upstate town’s tiny newspaper and takes a baffling interest in local politics. In these scenes, Ailes comes across as a pathetic blowhard and small-town bully. These close-up glimpses are fleeting in the doc, but perhaps the most revealing.
Of course, Ailes was not the only abusive figure at Fox News. Bloom could have probed a little deeper into the network’s toxic culture, which has seen multiple claims of misconduct against Bill O’Reilly, Bill Shine, Eric Bolling, Steve Doocy and more. Fox has reportedly spent millions and millions to cover up allegations and silence victims. Some of those accused remain on air, others are now working for the Trump administration. Ailes may be dead, but his bad smell lingers, and Divide and Conquer feels like only half the story.
Production companies: Jigsaw Productions, A&E IndieFilms, Impact Partners, Baird Films
Director: Alexis Bloom
Cinematographers: Antonio Rossi, Charlotte Kaufman
Editor: Pax Wassermann
Producers: Will Cohen, Alexis Bloom
Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Robert Sharenow, Alex Gibney, Stacey Offman, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn White, Dreyfous Maiken Baird
Music: Will Bates
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Cinetic Media (U.S.), A+E Networks (International)
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