Showtime is cooking up its own take on Roger Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, starring Russell Crowe as the disgraced Fox News CEO and chairman who was brought down when at least 20 women, including network stars Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, called him out for sexual harassment. Director Jay Roach has a film in play, Fair and Balanced, in which John Lithgow will portray Ailes with Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie costarring as women in his predatory orbit. Forced to resign in July 2016 amid charges of sexual misconduct, Ailes went to work on the Trump campaign and died in August 2017 after a fall in his home. You could wait for the Hollywood takes on this jowly predator who helped fire up the current era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Or, you could jump in right now and dig into Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, a well-researched and richly observant documentary from Alexis Bloom about the climate of lies and systemic abuse that nurtured Ailes and allowed his behavior to flourish.
Through archival footage and interviews with those who knew Ailes when (family members are significantly absent), Bloom shows how Ailes helped steer Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes and one Trump into the White House. In tandem with executive producer Alex Gibney, she paints a portrait of a young manipulator from Warren, Ohio, a son of a factory foreman who had little time for niceties. Growing up a hemophiliac, with death a constant threat, Ailes bulldozed his way into a career. An early job on a TV talk show gave him access to Richard Nixon — a train wreck on camera until Ailes convinced Nixon to hire him as a media consultant. Through exaggeration and obfuscation, Alies quickly became a kingmaker, orchestrating GOP campaigns for Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes (father and son) and lastly with Trump. When he helped bring Fox News into being in 1996, Ailes had found the perfect home for his obsessions. Not only could he use the network to get his candidates elected, he could cow the prettiest employees to sleep with him. They could refuse, of course. And then they’d be fired. The interviews Bloom features with the women who got on the wrong side of Ailes’ vengeful rage are hair-raising.
Fox News, where Ailes could make stars of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — who could in turn further his political agenda — is a daunting subject that gives this documentary size and purpose. Sadly, Bloom stays mostly on the surface when she needs to plumb the depths of a network that helped Ailes define himself and create a new world of propaganda disguised as news. Talking heads, railing about how they’re mad as hell, was only a prophecy in the 1976 film Network. Ailes made it a reality. Divide and Conquer paints a scary portrait of the arrogance of power, of news as a tool for sale, of a family man who morphed at work into a raging bully, demanding sexual favors and unquestioned obedience as his divine right. And getting away with it. For Ailes, it was good to be the king. Until it wasn’t. In Divide and Conquer, a disturbing study of depravity in full toxic bloom, Bloom makes it clear that it did happen here and that we can’t let it happen again.