Roger Ailes was chairman and CEO of Fox News, America’s most powerful partisan political network, but “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” makes the shrewd choice not to view him in strictly ideological terms.
Rather this gripping documentary, directed by Alexis Bloom with the veteran Alex Gibney serving as an executive producer, focuses on Ailes as a manipulator brilliant enough to make Machiavelli jealous, as well as a relentless harasser of women.
None of this is exactly news, but Bloom has worked hard to get extensive interviews with many people who knew Ailes well, including sympathetic colleagues like commentator Glenn Beck, so much so that we feel we’ve never really fully understood the man and his powerful influence on America’s political landscape until now.
The result is a compelling but chilling film, one that is inevitably disheartening and disturbing as it details both how Ailes came to understand the nature and power of fear and how he honed his craft until he could sell fear to his fellow citizens like it was going out of style. Bloom, a veteran doc producer whose previous directing work was the very different Debbie Reynolds/Carrie Fisher “Bright Lights,” made the smart decision to tie the film together with a first-person voice-over compiled from Ailes’ own words and read by “The Wire” actor Peter Gerety.
Ailes grew up in bucolic Warren, Ohio, where unlikely classmate actor Austin Pendleton remembers him as “witty, intelligent and handsome. We all wanted to be like Roger.”
That background helped Ailes hone what became one of his great gifts, the ability to empathize with the emotions of non-elite Americans, to understand that “we have a deep need to return to the basics: God, family, country.”
But there was darkness in Ailes’ life as well. His father was a bully and a tyrant, and the boy himself suffered from hemophilia, which kept him periodically housebound as a child and filled him with terror at the thought of bleeding to death.
Drawn to TV early in his career, Ailes started as a production assistant on “The Mike Douglas Show,” an early syndicated daytime talk show where he learned the valuable lesson that “if the audience likes you they’ll forgive everything you do wrong.”
When Richard Nixon, still smarting from his TV-influenced loss to John F. Kennedy, came on the show, Ailes jumped at the chance to meet him.
A student of how persuasively director Leni Riefenstahl had filmed Adolf Hitler in “Triumph of the Will,” Ailes told the former vice president that he could shape him, make him palatable to the fickle TV audience.
Nixon agreed and turned out to be the first of three Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were the others) to have Ailes as a close advisor.
Some of the most fascinating vintage clips that Bloom has turned up are the seemingly spontaneous but actually closely controlled televised audience events that came to be called “The Richard Nixon Show.”
It may sound obvious today, but when Ailes said in 1968 that “I don’t believe anyone will ever be elected to a major office again without skillful use of television,” he was well ahead of the curve.
Supplementing his work with presidents, Ailes founded Ailes Communications, a political consulting firm that coached Republican hopefuls.
One of the film’s most amusing segments involves how Ailes made the difference for long-shot Kentucky senatorial hopeful Mitch McConnell in his first race.
While Ailes was building his public reputation, in private, as wrenching interviews with several survivors reveal, he was engaging in the quid-pro-quo sexual harassment and bullying of women. If you were female and wanted to work with him, a demand for sex as part of the bargain was pervasive.
Ailes’ fascination with television led in 1994 to the founding of the chatter-based network “America’s Talking.” Just two years later, Bill Gates acquired it out from under him and turned it into MSNBC, creating a fury and a desire for revenge that were factors in his collaboration with Rupert Murdoch on the creation of the Fox network.
Personally paranoid — his Fox office featured a steel door and bullet-proof glass — Ailes was also famously pugnacious and never averse to taking on a battle.
A fascinating example “Divide and Conquer” details is what happened when Ailes moved to New York’s Hudson River Valley, purchased the local newspaper and tried to unseat town supervisor Richard Shea, threatening “I will destroy your life” when he thought Shea had zoning ideas not to his liking.
Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate should have been a high point for Ailes, but he was not at the convention to witness it because of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Fox News host Gretchen Carlson that effectively ended his career. He died May 18, 2017.
Ailes, a colleague says and this film proves, “knew what fear could do.” It turned out it couldn’t save his job, but it could create the kind of damage to the social fabric that we are still trying to survive.
‘Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes’
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes