By the time Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes opens at the end of 2018, its subject will have been dead for over a year and a half. But the media colossus he willed into existence out of spite and rage continues to beam his message across the nation with as much dark vigor as ever. As such, Bloom’s keenly insightful and deeply depressing documentary about the mastermind behind the Fox News Channel and much of what passes for modern conservative discourse is probably best viewed not as a record of the past but a document of what’s to come.
Bloom, working here under Alex Gibney’s production banner, begins with a slam-bang montage that would have made her subject proud. In a quick flurry, we’re given a sorrowful Glenn Beck recounting Ailes’s apt prediction of his legacy (“When I go, people are going to say awful things about me”), a claim that Ailes helped make at least three Republican presidents, and the moment at the 2016 Republican convention when Ailes was fired from Fox News.
From there, Bloom cuts to Ailes’s childhood in Warren, Ohio. He would later mythologize Warren as an Eden of white working-class virtue lost to globalism and multiculturalism. But Ailes wasn’t going to stay in Ohio forever. He had demons, internal and external, to slay. Pushed on by a mixture of blind ambition and a desire to cheat death (the film tries hard to connect the latter to his hemophilia), he was a quick-rising, stab-you-in-the-back producer at The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia when Richard Nixon came through. Offering his services to Tricky Dick as media adviser, a job that didn’t even exist in those early days of television, Ailes went to work crafting a new screen-ready image for the future president.
Divide and Conquer gives Ailes his due for knowing how to drive simple messages and smash raw, hot emotion out of the television set. It also makes much of his more noxious side, pointing out how he studied Triumph of the Will and openly aped Leni Riefenstahl’s techniques, down to the camera angles. The following section tracks how Ailes leveraged those skills into a lucrative career in the post-Nixon Republican realignment as political communications specialist, kingmaker, and master of the dark art of sleazeball attack ads. At the same time, Bloom also shows Ailes’s predatory habits, interviewing several women whom he baldly propositioned and one whose career he sabotaged after she turned him down.
The rest of Ailes’s career is seen as an exercise in vengeance. Infuriated when his strange early-‘90s all-talk cable network America’s Talking was canceled by NBC and replaced by MSNBC, he soon after launched a rival network funded by a conservative media tycoon who loved poking at the “elites” (later personified by the liberal drift of MSNBC) almost as much as Ailes did. Described by Ailes as a “pirate ship” to storm the news establishment, Fox News was its founder writ large: punchy, brash, paranoid, convinced it only stood between the vile liberal elites and the good people of America, and willing to destroy whatever and whomever it needed to in the process.
Bloom creates a vivid portrait of Ailes as a rageaholic, gun-packing, woman-menacing thug who bulletproofed his office door and made his life a to-the-death struggle that would feel extreme even for a David Mamet character. “If there was no battle, he’d create a battle,” notes E. Jean Carroll, one of his hosts from America’s Talking. Although Bloom never loses sight of the damage spread by Ailes’s poisonous paranoia and predation, she also can’t help but document his behavior’s absurdist extremes. Some of the film’s more unexpectedly comedic segments deal with his strange and less-reported fixation on turning the quiet Hudson Valley town of Cold Spring, where he had his mansion, into a kind of Republican fiefdom. The resulting battle to elect Ailes-friendly Republican surrogates to run the town looks in retrospect less Machiavellian than pathetic, with Ailes’s typical fire-and-fury overkill landing with a thud among the baffled and bemused townsfolk.
By the time Divide and Conquer starts unleashing the barrage of sexual harassment charges that finally brought Ailes down, the profile it creates of the man is ultimately that of a skilled but damaged man-child, not a political mastermind. But while Bloom is ultimately more engaged with Ailes the man than what he wrought, she’s fully cognizant of how his weaponization of political speech helped push American conservatism to the batshit fringe. The filmmaker doesn’t just highlight the ways Fox News mainstreamed the kind of conspiratorial bilge once confined to late-night AM radio, she also shows how Ailes tailored its messaging straight from his id: flags, colorful graphics, female anchors in short skirts for him to show off to the audience and demean off camera, and a deeply abiding sense that America was made for white men like him and nobody else. Divide and Conquer argues that today we’re all living in the world that Roger Ailes created.