Director Alexis Bloom chooses a Roman battle tactic as the title for Divide and Conquer, her documentary on Fox News’s Caligula. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, though this film made me wonder if anything can cleanse America’s political palate after Roger Ailes’s career. (GPG: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
Like his friend and political ally Donald Trump, Roger Ailes is a divisive figure. Some of the interviews in Divide and Conquer are reminiscent of how people spoke about Hitler during his rise to power—charming and persuasive, a man not to be crossed, a demagogic genius. Not to use the same tactics on Ailes as the Fox News mogul used on Barack Obama—Ailes and his lackeys compared Obama to Hitler on an hourly basis for his entire presidency. Though since Ailes’s network promotes literal white supremacists—like people who wear actual swastikas—I think I have slightly more justification.
Divide and Conquer takes an imaginative tack in its documentation of Ailes’s life, showing clips framed by old-style televisions and using re-enactments to personify Ailes beyond what archival footage can show. It also skillfully brings up the long-term implications of the milestones of Ailes’s career—including Ailes’s choice to let a New York millionaire with an NBC reality show and a grudge against President Obama become a regular guest on his network’s shows, decades before said millionaire decided to run for president. People who don’t watch Fox News might not be aware that Donald Trump was a familiar face to the Fox audience for decades, but Divide and Conquer draws a straight line from Ailes to Trump that will inform anyone who didn’t already know.
The parallels between Trump and Ailes are actually surprising—like Trump’s father, Ailes’s father was often violent, but like Trump, Ailes admired his father anyway. Ailes claimed that once his father came up to him while he was sitting in the top bunk of his bed and held his arms out, telling Roger to jump down to him. Roger jumped, and his father stepped back, letting him fall to the floor. The lesson was that Ailes should trust no one. Idealization of this cruel father figure gave Ailes the belief that everyone should fend for themselves, and a tendency to victimize the weak. This last trait of course includes the many women at Fox News who came forward with allegations of sexual assault, ending Ailes’s career.
Since Ailes died less than a year after leaving Fox News, it’s safe to say that the network was his life. If he hadn’t ruined so many other people’s lives, the viewer might be tempted to feel sorry for him. While Divide and Conquer doesn’t paint Ailes as the devil I assumed I would see, it certainly pulls no punches. The viewer is left with a more complex view of and a historical context for a man who has left an indelible mark on America. The very last scene is of Donald Trump accepting the Republican nomination for President as Fox News anchors cheer and dance. Cut to black, and a song with the lyrics, “where do we go from here?” As Divide and Conquer shows, that is certainly the question.
© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto FF2 Media (12/13/18)
Q: Does Divide and Conquer pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
It does not. Despite there being a female filmmaker at the helm, the interviewees do not speak to each other and thus do not technically pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. Plus, even if they did talk to each other, they would probably be talking about Roger Ailes.
Featured Image: Roger Ailes in a Fox News studio.
Top Photo: Roger Ailes.
Middle Photo: Gretchen Carlson, a Fox News personality who accused Roger Ailes of sexual assault.
Bottom Photo: The Fox News logo.
Photo credits: A&E, Getty Images, Fox News,