Roger Ailes was so much the architect of the news-media world in which we now live that a) nothing short of a 12-hour documentary miniseries could probably do him justice; and b) the glibly watchable 107-minute “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” is exactly the memorial he deserves.
Before multiple sexual harassment accusations forced his ouster in 2016, Ailes created and reigned as the behind-the-scenes pasha of Fox News. Before that he was a media consultant and political kingmaker without whom Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump might very well have never been elected. This country owes him much, and if your personal response is either gratitude or unprintable — well, the division itself is Ailes’s true legacy.
Directed by Alexis Bloom, “Divide and Conquer” is a brisk and reasonably thorough dog trot through a life that was simultaneously invisible and all powerful, and it’s goosed along with slick production techniques that more than once get in the way. We hear about Ailes’s Ohio childhood (from actor-director Austin Pendleton, a boyhood friend) and how a young man who was “witty, funny . . . and mercilessly handsome” already was tilting his lance against the liberal pieties of the day.
Ailes landed a producer’s gig on “The Mike Douglas Show” in the mid-1960s, and there’s a revelatory anecdote of him pulling guest Richard M. Nixon aside and telling him “You need a media adviser.” “What’s a media adviser, Roger?” “I am.” In November 1968, Nixon was elected president.
“Divide and Conquer” is at its best when it digs deep into the methods behind Ailes’s messaging. He studied Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious Nazi documentary “Triumph of the Will” for visual cues to apply to Nixon’s “man in the arena” TV appearances. A segment on how he helped a little-known Kentucky politician named Mitch McConnell to an unexpected Senate win in 1984 has Ailes’s team sitting the candidate in a rowboat for a common-man fishing spot and literally putting the worm on the hook for him. (What do I do now, Roger?” McConnell is said to have asked.)
We’re reminded of Ailes’s creation of “America’s Talking,” a cable-network precursor to Fox News, and we’re shown an alarming Nixon-era memo floating “A Plan to Put the GOP on Television” using government-funded outreach to an unofficial network of local stations — shades of today’s Sinclair Broadcast Group.
With the 1996 debut of the 24-hour Fox News channel, Ailes found his cultural catbird seat, Rupert Murdoch nodding benignly from above and such hungry young fellows as Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and frequent guest Donald J. Trump stirring the pot from below. “Divide and Conquer” brings in talking heads from both outside Fox News and inside the bulwarks — former staffers include journalists David Shuster and Alisyn Camerota and a showily rueful Glenn Beck — and it regularly returns to interviews with women journalists whose repulsive experiences with Ailes reached back to his tenure on “The Mike Douglas Show.”
“If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys,” is how Ailes allegedly came on to one reporter, and more than one woman says that his propositions included the possibility of her being “shared” among his friends. Director Bloom skillfully connects the dots between these stories and the macho culture of Fox News both onscreen and offscreen. When Ailes’s own moment of truth came, courtesy of anchorwoman Gretchen Carlson, he reached out to Donald Trump for advice.
“We will never, ever settle this case — Roger is more important than America,” Ailes’s wife, Beth, told a pair of crisis consultants” interviewed here. The final sequences of “Divide and Conquer” reveal a man both paranoid and megalomaniacal, who was convinced he was a statesman-like target for assassination, and who genuinely believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim sleeper agent.
At one point, Bloom indulges in some specious “Citizen Kane”-style analysis with a traumatic anecdote Ailes often told about his cruel father, only to later undercut it by showing how Ailes probably swiped the “memory” from others. But that self-mythification was at the heart of his success and of where we are now. Ailes knew Americans loved the story of their country much more than the reality, so he told the story until he convinced himself and then he turned around and sold it back to us. He really was our era’s Charles Foster Kane, carny barker, and true believer in one conflicted package. He died in May 2017, leaving us behind in a world he made.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES
Directed by Alexis Bloom. Kendall Square. 107 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, discussions of sexual assault)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.