Divide and Conquer, documentarian Alexis Bloom’s account of the fractious rise and ignominious fall of the late Roger Ailes, presents its subject as the lonely, fearful and paranoid arsonist of our present political dumpster fire, with delusions of grandeur worthy of Don Quixote and an ego as inflated as the Goodyear blimp. It’s not for nothing that Bloom’s interviewees compare Ailes to larger-than-life figures like Charles Foster Kane and Ernest Hemingway.
None of these takeaways will be revelations to the plugged-in news junkie. He or she knows that behind every Hannity and O’Reilly that has emerged in conservative television since Fox News’ sea-changing launch in 1996, Ailes has lurked, pulling their strings, sharpening their ideological swords, keeping them on message. For all his self-serving grandstanding, Ailes did alter the American polity for generations; even President Obama, when meeting Ailes at a White House Christmas party, acknowledged that he was the most influential person in media. And according to an interviewee in Bloom’s film, “It’s unthinkable that Donald Trump would exist without Fox.”
Bloom’s storytelling is swiftly paced and insightful, if formally generic. Archival clips and quotable sound bites move it briskly along, and she relies on occasional Errol Morris-style flourishes, turning a reported story of Ailes throwing a chair across the room into a slow motion, stylized re-enactment. Her interviewees are mostly friendly to an anti-Ailes agenda, and seldom challenge the interviewer.
But the film is most instructive in revealing aspects of Ailes most of us don’t know. He grew up in wholesome Warren, Ohio, a Mayberry by another name, as the son of a factory foreman with an apparent Machiavellian streak, who disciplined his son with a belt. It will come as a surprise to many viewers that Ailes was once a good-looking man — the handsomest in his class, according to a fellow student, who still sounds envious of Ailes decades later — and was a witty, charming and persuasive debater.
Ailes also had hemophilia, a condition likely passed down from his mother, to which Bloom’s sources credit his fearful nature, and which did in fact contribute to his death, in 2017. Bloom then extrapolates, a bit too much, on this theory with a montage of fear-baiting pundits on Fox News ranting about sharia law and other outrages du jour; Divide and Conquer could do without the pop-psych commentary.
Bloom then charts the beginning of Ailes’ ascent in television and politics, from his foray as a P.A. on The Mike Douglas Show to a position he invented — “media adviser” — for Richard Nixon’s foundering political career in the early 1960s. With a canny understanding of the power of television, he transformed Nixon from the sweating square of the 1960 presidential debate to the next leader of the free world, and his successful track record continued with the elections of Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
To elevate the latter, who was trailing Dukakis by 15 points, Ailes conceived the infamous Willie Horton ad, whose divide-and-conquer dog whistles are as loud as ever today. (Ailes was savvy enough to wipe his hands of the ad after it had done its damage: “I wish it never would have aired,” he says, playing dumb on a public-affairs show Bloom excerpts for us.)
In the conservative wilderness of the Clinton years, Ailes developed Fox News as a counter to the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media, and the rest is a sordid history of misinformation, conspiracy mongering and wedge-issue exploitation, a strategy one of Bloom’s sources calls “riling up the crazies”— a phrase Ailes himself reportedly used around the office.
And then the house of cards came crashing down, at least for the svengali behind the scenes and his top-rated commentator. Bill O’Reilly and Ailes were notoriously felled by the #MeToo movement, and it’s in her examinations of Ailes’ abusive behavior that Bloom’s film is most necessary. It took credible allegations from 14 women to finally force his resignation, but Ailes’ history of sexual harassment apparently was present from the beginning of career. One aspiring professional shares a story from the pre-Fox days, of rebuffing Ailes’ advances in the backseat of car and subsequently being placed on a “no-hire” list, effectively ending her career in communications.
In subsequent stories of sexual harassment survivors, prospective hires are forced to “twirl” for Ailes, like beauty-pageant contestants, or to hike up their skirts and show him their legs. It is suggested, again and again, that they sleep with Ailes as a way to further their careers. In an astonishing snippet of video Bloom unearths from long before any allegations were made public, Ailes appears on The Charlie Rose Show, quipping that the only industry that allows you to be a misogynistic, predatory bastard and get away with it is the media. Rose immediately lets his professionalism slip, and both men yuk it up, harasser to harasser, all but revealing an open secret.
One reporter describes Ailes’ unceremonious ouster from Fox in 2016 — when he was locked out of the building, unable even to collect his personal effects — in incendiary terms: “They took him out like a drone strike.” This sounds very much like the militaristic language Fox News helped to normalize in political discourse. Somewhere in hell, Ailes is smiling at the verbiage.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER. Director: Alexis Bloom; Distributor: Magnolia; Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse