Review: 'Divide and Conquer' examines Roger Ailes legacy

Posted December 7, 2018 12:26 p.m. EST

— Roger Ailes was such a larger-than-life, swaggering figure that he practically overwhelms the attempt to distill his life into a single documentary. "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" is filled with fascinating insights about the late Fox News CEO, but in ways feels as if it only scratches the surface of his influence, and perhaps especially, the most corrosive aspects of his legacy.

Working with producer Alex Gibney, director Alexis Bloom begins at the 2016 Republican National Convention, where Ailes' life's work seemingly came to fruition with the nomination of Donald Trump -- juxtaposed, remarkably in terms of the timing, against Ailes' ouster from Fox amid sexual-harassment allegations.

The narrative then returns to Ailes' upbringing in Ohio, his humble beginnings in TV and his segue into conservative politics working on behalf of Richard Nixon and others, recognizing early on -- as he's shown telling Mike Wallace in an interview -- that "the skillful use of television" will be vital to candidates at every level going forward.

The documentary cites a tentative draft during that period outlining plans for a Republican TV network, one that would allow conservatives to present their message while bypassing the critical scrutiny of the mainstream press. After his experiment at NBC in launching the cable channel America's Talking, that's essentially what Ailes did when Rupert Murdoch turned him loose at Fox News, creating an entity that synthesized his political objectives and commercial considerations into one hugely influential force.

That creation, and its massive repercussions, serves as the crux of the title "Divide and Conquer." As more than one associate suggests, Ailes had a knack for reading a room, and understood how to prey upon people's apprehensions -- an approach illustrated by a montage of Fox fear-mongering -- to win their support and loyalty, either as viewers or voters.

Beyond interviews with friends, colleagues and critics, the filmmakers provide additional insight through Ailes' own words, as read by actor Peter Gerety.

Still, Bloom devotes a significant portion of the project's second half to Ailes' bullying of local officials in his small town of Cold Spring, N.Y., and the alleged sexual misconduct that led to his downfall, including internal details about his strategizing to professionally survive the accusations.

Those stories are obviously necessary, demonstrating how Ailes abused his position and power in revolting ways. In a sense, though, his egregious private behavior draws the focus away from the damage he inflicted on media and politics -- seamlessly wedding the two, while endeavoring to discredit established outlets in a manner that benefited Fox.

The effects of those efforts are summed up by journalist Sarah Ellison, who observes that it's "unthinkable that Donald Trump as a candidate would exist" without the assiduous way in which Ailes paved the way for him.

"Divide and Conquer" also recounts how Ailes stoked fear within Fox News -- where rumors swirled that he was listening in on employees -- and how Murdoch, happy to bask in the profits, left him alone, later downplaying the harassment allegations that eventually sunk his career.

As CNN anchor and Fox alum Alisyn Camerota points out, the 2016 election should have been a "crowning moment for Roger." Instead, he watched the final stages of the campaign from outside the network he built, before dying in 2017.

Having lived with hemophilia, Ailes was well aware of his own mortality. Glenn Beck, a Fox News star before leaving the network, quotes his former boss as saying, "When I go, people are gonna say awful thing about me."

"Divide and Conquer" is well worth watching, underscoring the power Ailes wielded at the enterprise he ran for 20 years like a virtual kingdom. The key disclaimer would be that while presenting Ailes' life and influence, the film devotes less time than it should to contextualizing the lingering consequences of his reign.

"Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" premieres in theaters and on iTunes and Amazon on Dec. 7.