‘Divide and Conquer’: Portrait of a News Exec Who Channeled Power and Fear

Posted December 6, 2018 5:47 p.m. EST

Any documentary — or obituary — that reckons with the legacy of Roger Ailes faces an almost impossible choice of emphasis.

Here, after all, was a gifted news media pioneer who served as a presidential campaign whisperer to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. As the longtime chief executive of and main creative force behind Fox News, Ailes can be credited not only with changing the nature of political discourse in this country, but also with making a large number of Americans, left and right, significantly angrier. And his career ended after a surge of sexual-harassment allegations and accusations that he had fostered a misogynistic boy’s-club culture at Fox News — a scandal that forced him from the channel in 2016, a little less than a year before his death.

“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” a documentary from Alexis Bloom (“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”), may disappoint those looking for different inflections, but it does an impressive and absorbing job of covering all those bases. What’s more, it conveys a credible sense of Ailes’ psychology through the testimony of peers and co-workers who witnessed his ruthlessness firsthand.

A childhood friend, actor Austin Pendleton, hypothesizes that Ailes’ hemophilia, which left him at risk of bleeding to death, helped give him an understanding of the fears of others. But Bloom also paints him as a man with an unquenchable, irrational thirst for power. Some of the most eye-opening sections in the film concern Ailes’ forays into town-level politics in Putnam County, New York, where he lived and became the owner of a local newspaper, an endeavor worthy enough of his time that he stands accused here of monitoring an employee’s Facebook messages. (“I was just the copy editor,” Alison Rooney says. “Why does he care?”)

Working in a style that owes a lot to Errol Morris (a description of Ailes’ having thrown a chair is accompanied by imagery of a flying chair), Bloom has assembled footage that seems chilling in retrospect. We see clips of scenes that Ailes helped stage to portray awkward politicians like Nixon and Mitch McConnell as men of the people. There is a cringe-inducing conversation between Ailes and Charlie Rose in which Ailes jokes that if you want to have political influence and still get away with womanizing, journalism is the career for you. Former Fox News correspondent David Shuster suggests that Ailes’ contempt toward Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal — a story that Fox News flogged relentlessly — stemmed not just from political differences but from Ailes’ perception that Clinton was sloppy for getting caught. A crisis manager quotes Ailes’ wife as saying he was more important than the country.

Some important matters are inevitably, and frustratingly, left on the table. Fox News’ growth during the George W. Bush administration — in spreading fear after Sept. 11 and in trumpeting the Iraq War — could have used more screen time. But you leave “Divide and Conquer” energized and incensed, and with a grudging admiration for Ailes’ pugnacious instincts. It feels deeply uncomfortable that he might have wanted it that way.

“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.