However slight, this is a perceptive — and unsettling — documentary that takes a necessary look at a powerful media mogul who changed the US forever
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (2018)
Written and directed by Alexis Bloom.
With a very indicative title, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is a perceptive examination of a cunning man who knew how to maintain his power and expand his sphere of influence with a strategic use of media. The late Roger Ailes, former CEO of Fox News and Chairman of Fox Television Stations, understood early on that television could be used both as a tool to help candidates win elections and as a weapon to drive a wedge between different groups in American society. Many considered him to be the most powerful man on media. Some would even use the word “genius.” Indeed, Ailes was the man behind the curtain — and a major example of abusive power and dangerous manipulation.
Alexis Bloom’s documentary offers a well-researched look into Ailes’s life and the motivations that led to the mogul’s success and later downfall, mainly through interviews with journalists, friends and acquaintances. After quickly mentioning that he was forced to resign from Fox in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment, the director takes us way back to Warren, Ohio, in 1954, where we learn that Ailes’s stern father, a factory foreman, was a union man who hated the unions. “Liberals will destroy this town,” the guy allegedly predicted, helping shape his son’s right-wing worldview when the prophecy became reality and the whole industry moved out, leaving the town to rot.
Bloom also suggests that Ailes’s constant dread of dying may have taught him how to manipulate other people’s fears for his own benefit. He was hemophilic and terrified of bleeding to death, and even the fact that his condition was inherited by his mother might cast some light on his toxic behavior towards women. Ailes’s notable power of persuasion would catapult him from production assistant to producer in The Mike Douglas Show and later to becoming Richard Nixon’s media advisor in 1968, when he worked to sell Nixon’s image on TV inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi propaganda techniques, changing forever the way politics were done in the country.
And when we think about the power that media (especially television) has of manipulating opinions, it becomes equally disturbing to learn about Ailes’s ambition to put the GOP on TV and thus bypass the institutional press to send the message he intended to the American people. Bloom clearly sees the man as a cross between Charles Foster Kane and the great master of manipulation, Alfred Hitchcock, never overlooking the mogul’s physical resemblance with the Master of Suspense and even using the playful tune from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to drive her point home — as well as a voiceover narration based on Ailes’s books that makes him sound fittingly slimy and cynical in actor Peter Gerety’s voice.
The film also mentions that Ailes used to take tap dancing, and so Bloom employs a tap-dancing body double to illustrate how the man slyly danced around in the political game. When he quit being a talk show host on NBC’s America’s Talking to become head of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in 1996, it was more of an opportunity to take revenge on his old bosses for partnering with Bill Gates in the creation of MSNBC — which is something that says a lot about the way he saw journalism, as a personal weapon against his enemies. Likewise, Bloom does a careful job examining Ailes’s even darker side as a sexual predator who resorted to the worst kind of smear tactics to silence the women he harassed.
In the end, we can see that Ailes’s relentless methods to divide and conquer using threats and intimidation have been generally the same, like when he acquired a tiny local newspaper in Cold Spring, New York, only to throw the community members against each other and become “owner” of the town. But the documentary explores how this vicious effort to rule over others took its toll and left Ailes absurdly paranoid, prompting him to plant bugs all over his newsroom and even carry the delusional (and megalomaniacal) belief that his was the second name on Al-Qaeda’s death list.
With sexual assault scandals forcing Ailes out of Fox News with millions to pay in settlements to silence his victims, Ailes saw the end of his “mission.” Like a bitter coda, the man who used to brag about having “helped create three Republican presidents” believed he had failed at turning the country into his playground. But, as Bloom concludes, the damaging impact that Ailes had on the media and on the country remains and will remain for a very long time. And we shall remember him as a cancerous figure who, even dead, represents most of what is wrong with American society.