Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, a standard doc about a lonely, insecure GOP "fixer"

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C
There’s one illuminating segment in Alexis Bloom’s documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, which might have made a fascinating stand-alone short doc.

It recounts how Ailes, the Republican fixer and Fox News mastermind bought a mansion in the Hudson River valley town of Cold Spring, New York, took over two local newspapers and tried to turn the place into his own fiefdom. 

Roger Ailes: The man who “riled the crazies” to create Fox News and masterminded the GOP

Roger Ailes: The man who “riled the crazies” to create Fox News and masterminded the GOP

Ailes failed, ultimately, because the kind of “small-town” Americans he always claimed to represent pushed back against his bullying and bribery. Local contractor and part-time politician Richard Shea, who Ailes threatened to destroy, describes his terrible neighbour as a lonely, insecure man who just couldn’t stop trying to dominate and impress. Even after Ailes lost the battle, he would call Shea on the phone to remind him how important he was.

Otherwise, this documentary by Bloom (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) is superficial, playing out with a series of talking-head interviews and some dramatic re-enactments, not unlike an A&E celeb biography. 

We get an aerial view of Ailes career, from his days as a Mike Douglas Show booker (belying his ‘anti-Hollywood’ rhetoric) to a political fixer when he convinced Richard Nixon to hire him as a media consultant. 

He went on to help shape the modern GOP, working for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump, and creating the “rile the crazies” strategy of FOX News, promoting fear and paranoia in exchange for advertising dollars. The film covers Ailes forced resignation in 2016 midst a flurry of sexual harassment revelations, but ignores his subsequent work for Trump as a debate consultant.

Among the archival clips, we have actor-director Austin Pendleton, a childhood friend of Ailes, who remembers Ailes fondly as a clever, engaging friend. Pendleton and others suggest that Ailes’ drive and aggression were a response to his fear of death because of his haemophilia (a contributing factor to his death from a fall in May, 2017) - which seems disrespectful to decent people with haemophilia. 

Attempts to add balance, including a damp-eyed interview with now-repentant, former conspiracy theorist and race-baiter Glenn Beck, do nothing to soften the image of Ailes as a profoundly destructive man, on both on a personal and political level. A proposed feature film about Ailes (with John Lithgow) and a Showtime miniseries (with Russell Crowe) are both in the works: Let’s hope the dramatized versions prove more illuminating.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. Directed by Alexis Bloom. With Glenn Beck, Austin Pendleton. Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes shows at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema