movie review

Divide and Conquer Tells Roger Ailes’s Origin Story

Photo: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Among the many brilliant choices Alexis Bloom makes in her documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is not to frame her subject the way that Ailes’s Fox News Network would present one of its liberal hobgoblins. Her tone is chill, unsensational, and her interviewees are lucid rather than sneering or vindictive. (The exceptions are the women whose lives and careers he disfigured, and they are not vindictive — only ravaged.) She wants to anatomize Ailes, to explore the origins of his worldview and the ways in which it fed his vision of a news network that would be not merely propagandistic but militantly divisive. She gives him the stature he’s due, as the nearest thing we’ve had to a modern Citizen Kane. What emerges is a portrait of a man whose fall was precipitous but whose sensibility and techniques outlive him and continue to evolve. This is the acid test for a good journalistic documentary: No matter how far back it reaches, Divide and Conquer always feels as if it’s in the present tense.

After a prologue that hinges on the election of Donald Trump — perhaps the ultimate Fox News candidate, as well as a fan — Bloom jumps back to Ailes’s childhood in Warren, Ohio, and works up a considerable amount of sympathy for her subject. We are, after all, born innocent. Ailes had hemophilia and would come to see himself as vulnerable in ways that transcended the physical realm: Cynical as his techniques often were, he seems to have truly believed, like his blue-collar father, in the threat from liberal elites to the country he loved. Let’s spell that out: labor unions (which his father maintained forced the closure of the town’s factories), socialists, civil-rights activists, feminists. What undermined the America in which he grew up undermined Ailes — and vice versa. (One weird wrinkle: Hemophilia is passed down through the mother’s side, so some of Ailes’s friends think he viewed women as the source of his weakness. As Mr.
Spock would say, eyebrows gently lifted: “Fascinating.”)

What you might not expect to hear is that Ailes was a magnetic kid, charming even to people who didn’t agree with him. Who should pop up early on but Austin Pendleton, the actor, director, and New York theatrical fixture who radiates liberal affability. Pendleton, it turns out, was a high-school friend (class of ’59) of Ailes and describes him as smart and funny and the “mercilessly handsomest young man you can imagine” — which suggests that people do, finally, end up with the faces they deserve.

As a producer on the daily Mike Douglas Show in the mid-’60s, Ailes proved a quick study in the art of backstabbing, but it wasn’t until Richard Nixon — then running for president — showed up as a guest that Ailes saw the brass ring and grabbed for it hard. He sold himself to Nixon as a “media adviser,” and Bloom makes a compelling case (her footage selection is shrewd) that he played a key part in Nixon’s election. Taking his cues from Triumph of the Will, Ailes made Nixon as “the man in the arena,” alone on a bare stage without props, and daring to subject himself to hard questions (selected in advance) from a live audience (selected in advance). “I want to see faces. I want to see pores,” said Ailes, who brought the camera in tight to convey the inner drama. Give him this: He was alive to the medium’s possibilities in ways that the gentlemen of network news regarded as vulgar. He would teach them a lesson then and a bigger one two decades on.

It was journalist John Cook who discovered in documents obtained via a FOIA request that Ailes presented Nixon’s chief of staff John Haldeman with the idea of a “GOP TV network” funded with taxpayer money. Cook paraphrases the question that Ailes wrestled with: How do we get a message to people without going through a critical press? That GOP network would prove impractical at the time (for one thing, Haldeman and Nixon would soon be gone), but was destined to live in the early ’90s with money from Rupert Murdoch.

Bloom suggests that nothing Ailes created — Fox News included — was wholly removed from the drive for vengeance. Nixon’s fall at the hands of the liberal media was one unkind cut that had to be avenged. Unkinder was being cut loose by NBC’s “America’s Talking” 24-hour cable channel (which Ailes hatched) when NBC joined forces with Bill Gates to create MSNBC. Ailes told a colleague, “I’m going to fuck them like they’ve never been fucked before.” He had, after that, the mentality of a pirate preying on the big ships. To his energetic Fox News staff, he described the new network as a “pirate ship” that would be nimble where others were heavy and antiquated.

And then, of course, were the legs. Ailes wanted to see his women anchors and correspondents from “head to toe” rather than the waist up, and in short dresses he often selected himself. Strategically placed lights and cameras made certain that the eyes of Fox’s predominantly white male viewers would be fed while their ears received a steady stream of propaganda, much of which centered on the liberal enemy du jour. Ailes and his wife despised the Clintons, and when Linda Tripp appeared with tapes of her “friend” Monica Lewinsky describing an affair with the president, Ailes ran with the story and never stopped running.

Most scorched-earth political operatives do their work in the shadows (see, for example, Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney anti-hagiography, Vice, which opens on Christmas), but Bloom is fortunate that Ailes liked to put himself out there. On the America’s Talking network, he briefly had his own interview show, and he was good on camera. He wasn’t bellicose, like his future stars Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. He seemed thoughtful, like someone you could reason with.

What Bloom captures so hauntingly via talking heads (a limited but lively sampling of friends, colleagues, and victims, inventively photographed in all their discomfort) is that the more power Ailes acquired, the more he was driven to abuse. He must have thought, I worked for this. Journalist Sarah Ellison points out the connection between sexualizing women for Fox viewers and for people in the building at the time. New and potential women hires were asked to stand up and turn around for Ailes: the twirl. Often, he said he saw them going far, but that they’d need to work closely with him — at a hotel. Those who turned him down weren’t always driven away and blackballed. Only some, who show up in Divide and Conquer like ghosts. No, that’s not quite fair. They have full lives. But they make it clear that something died in them the day they met Roger Ailes.

There’s not a huge amount of news broken in Divide and Conquer, especially if you’ve read Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room or devoured his haymaker features in this magazine. We hear of the escalating paranoia, the likely bugging of Fox headquarters, the detectives tasked with digging up dirt on Fox enemies and planting it in various Murdoch publications. But Bloom has the videotape. Giving this story form — telling it with faces and pores — drives home both its immensity and its weirdness; and she and her editor, Pax Wassermann, reinforce every personal recollection with eye-popping images and excerpts.

There are so many great moments, among them Ailes holding forth at a town meeting in Cold Spring, New York, where he bought a hilltop manse along with a local newspaper and set about using the same bullying techniques to establish a fiefdom that had worked so well down the Hudson. But the residents of Cold Spring would prove less easy to dominate, even with threats of Fox News trucks sitting in their driveways. The story of how Ailes got the hapless, charisma-free Mitch McConnell elected — for a commercial, Ailes put him in a boat and handed him a fishing rod, which McConnell had no idea how to operate — is one of the movie’s jewels. (“Reel in the fucking fish, Mitch.”) Former police detective Bo Dietl — who gathered intel for Ailes — is always good for quotes. He likes being on camera. An unforgettable section of the film features Evergreen Partners crisis managers Warren Cooper and Karen Kessler, who were summoned to Ailes’s home/war room when Murdoch’s sons — in the wake of the lawsuit from Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s #MeToo death blow — finally ousted him from News Corps. Bloom has made a choice to include footage of them sitting down and arranging themselves for the interview with her, their nervousness palpable. Crisis managers keep secrets. They don’t talk about what they saw inside the coops when chickens are coming home to roost. But Cooper and Kessler don’t want to be remembered for helping Ailes lash out in his final hours in the spotlight. The images they conjure up of those desperate last hours are surreal.

It would be hard to call Divide and Conquer “fair and balanced,” insofar as no one comes aboard to make an ethical case for some of Ailes’s innovations. I don’t know how you’d spin the idea that giving oxygen to dangerously cracked-brain partisan conspiracies to — as one former Fox News Network insider puts it — “rile up the crazies” is good for democracy, but I’m sure that there are people out there who’d try. But at least one viewer came away in genuine awe of what Ailes achieved: He took his angry, paranoid, misogynistic, predatory inner world and remade ours in its image.

Divide and Conquer Tells Roger Ailes’s Origin Story