Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
(USA, 107 min.)
Dir. Alexis Bloom
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Near the start of Alexis Bloom’s documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, we hear a voice-over of Ailes, the mastermind behind Fox News who resigned in disgrace in 2016. He’s describing how he grew up in Warren, Ohio a town of real American values, not like Hollywood or the East Coast.
Real American values — like extorting sex from women, eavesdropping on employees and promoting paranoia, what Fox News producers called “riling the crazies”, to boost ratings? Of course that’s entirely unfair to small-town America. Ailes may more accurately be described as a product of “Hollywood,” that metonym for the entertainment industry, as are many key players associated with the Trump regime, including former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, treasurer Steve Mnuchin, and the former reality-star president himself.
Ailes got his start on The Mike Douglas Show, rubbing shoulders with movie stars and other celebrities including Richard Nixon, who he convinced to hire him as a media consultant. That brought him into the world of politics where he directly aided the careers of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump, employing emotion, especially fear, as a political weapon, reshaping cable news and helping Trump’s political base.
As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taebi wrote of Ailes’ death last year: “… it’s conspicuous that our media landscape is now a perfect Ailes-ian dystopia, cleaved into camps of captive audiences geeked up on terror and disgust. The more scared and hate-filled we are, the more advertising dollars come pouring in, on both sides.”
Ailes’ career is a sizeable biographical subject (soon to be an eight-part Showtime drama, starring Russell Crowe). Bloom’s film, unfortunately, is superficial and largely redundant, adding little to the two biographies and countless media stories about the disgraced Fox News mastermind. Among the archival clips, there are a few new interviews of interest, including one with actor-director Austin Pendleton, a childhood friend of Ailes, who remembers him as bright, witty and handsome. Pendleton and others suggest that Ailes’ drive and aggression were a response to his awareness of mortality because of haemophilia (a contributing factor to his death from a fall in May, 2017), though this seems to be Ailes’ Citizen Kane-like self-dramatizing myth. There’s one mildly comic interview with a pair of image consultants, who were contacted by a lawyer friend of Donald Trump’s to try to redeem Ailes’ image after the first round of sexual harassment charges, but realized their subject was irredeemable when an aide explained that Aisles was “bigger than America.
Possibly in anticipation of accusations of media bias, attempts to add “balance”, Blooms has included interviews with former Fox friends praising and pitying their profoundly destructive employer. Prodigal former Fox host, Glenn Beck (the guy who used to say Obama hates white people), talks with moist-eyed awe and regret about Ailes’ fall. Other Fox cohorts assert that Ailes was a man without a reason to live after he was ousted by Fox in July, 2016, ignoring that he went from his television job to working as a debate coach for Donald Trump.
Easily the film’s best segment, which could serve as a vivid stand-alone documentary, is the story of how Ailes bought a mansion in a town in upstate New York, took over the newspaper and tried to turn the place into his own fiefdom. Local contractor and part-time politician Richard Shea, who Ailes threatened to destroy, speaks thoughtfully about his neighbour from hell as a lonely, insecure man who just couldn’t stop trying to dominate and impress. The fact that Ailes failed was a victory for small-town values after all.