There is absolutely no getting around how terrible a person Roger Ailes was. Responsible for developing a so-called news network that thrives on stoking fear after decades of reforming conservative political candidates into camera-ready manipulators, Ailes was a figure as contemptible for his public persona as for his private abuses of his power with female journalists in his employ. It might then seem superfluous to devote an entire documentary to the man so soon after his departure from the public eye and, soon after, from this mortal coil, but Divide and Conquer is more than just a recounting of Ailes’ history. Instead, what documentarian Alexis Bloom tries to accomplish is an understanding of the man himself, the person who was driven to build an empire on paranoia, and what Bloom found was less skilled manipulator than someone rather pathetic.
Divide and Conquer is a pretty standard talking head documentary, interviewing people close to Ailes throughout his career about the road that made him, as President Barack Obama once put it, “the most powerful man in media.” Starting as a television producer who wormed his way into the 1968 Nixon campaign as a media advisor, he quickly established himself as the go-to man for conservative candidates to make themselves presentable to television audiences. Ailes rather explicitly drew inspiration from the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, and one interviewee describes Ailes’ meteoric rise in the world of political salesmanship as comparable to Charles Foster Kane. This is the man in large part responsible for Reagan’s and the Bushs’ presidencies, Mitch McConnell’s place in Congress, and the Trump presidency, which now has a symbiotic relationship with the remnants of Ailes’ legacy.
In terms of analyzing Ailes’ tactics, though, interviewees make no bones about the goals of Ailes’ work. He never claimed to be a journalist, but instead aimed to get the most viewers for his network through passion and conspiracy, facts be damned. He was a man who prized loyalty above all else, and he created a network that enabled him to fulfill promises for those loyal to him, and when it came to women that often meant the expectation of sexual favors. This is all fairly obvious from knowing the products of his work and the mountains of sexual harassment claims that were leveled against him in 2016, but it’s the framework in which Divide and Conquer shows Ailes’ fragility that contextualizes him as dangerous precisely because he was so individually weak.
As a child, Ailes was subject to child abuse at the hands of his father, who continually reinforced the notion that nobody was to be trusted, particularly liberals who would strip their idyllic 1950s rural town of their prosperity. As a hemophiliac, Ailes reviled his mother for passing the condition along to him, a revulsion he extended to all women by his own admission through recorded audio. Because his disability prevented him from serving in the military, he often imagined his propagandizing as his personal contribution to a war between liberalism and conservativism, widening a gap between the two in ways he saw as defining a battlefield for the American psyche. But at the heart of all his network’s posturing and fear-mongering was a man who actually did believe most of his hate-filled rhetoric. He was a lonesome, loathsome man who placed himself behind bulletproof glass for fear of people of Middle Eastern descent and sat atop a pile of money while wondering why the average person found him so disconcerting and alienating in person. He sold people on his delusions while being entirely unable to relate to people on an individual level, and it would be sad were it not for the number of people he hurt along the way.
And thankfully Divide and Conquer never loses sight of the consequences of Roger Ailes’ career, never tipping fully into sympathizing with the monster as it wraps on a condemnation of his employer Rupert Murdoch and a requiem for the victims of his sexual harassment. If you are familiar enough with Roger Ailes to want to seek out a documentary about him, there likely isn’t a whole lot of new information to be offered up by Divide and Conquer, regardless of how slick and confidently it biographically deconstructs the decades of impact this one man had on the American political landscape. But if you want to maybe understand the mind of the monster, if such a thing can offer you some closure on the damage he wrought so that we may continue to cope with its effects, then this is a level of insight that is, if nothing else, cathartic.