FILM REVIEW – DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES. With Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Richard Nixon. Directed by Alexis Bloom. Unrated, but contains profanity. 107 minutes.
He might not be a household name, but Roger Ailes has conceivably done more damage to the fabric of American life in the 21st century than any foreign despot could ever dream of causing. The disgraced former Fox News chairman was an unparalleled genius at media manipulation, a kingmaker of scoundrels, and an unrepentant lech.
Alexis Bloom’s blood-boiling documentary DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES methodically traces the diabolically brilliant tactics via which this porcine pervert transformed modern conservatism into a billion-dollar grievance industry. It’s a depressingly necessary viewing experience, basically the opposite of the Mister Rogers movie in that you spend two hours with one of the worst human beings to walk the planet during our lifetimes but in the end feel a little bit better because at least he’s dead.
Bloom’s film traces the arc of this unlikely arch-villain from his humble beginnings in Cleveland as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where Ailes pitched guest and then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon on being his “media consultant” and somehow miraculously managed to make the sweaty, glowering mountain of mendacity come off okay on television. From there Ailes became the man behind the curtain for a murderer’s row of malignant pricks, from Rudy Giuliani to Mitch McConnell. His masterpiece, of course, was the notorious “Willie Horton ad” that rocketed a floundering George H.W. Bush to the Presidency by brazenly stoking white folks’ fear of big, scary black dudes, a staple of Ailes’ repertoire.
But like most people who spend all day grousing about celebrities and “Hollywood elites,” Ailes desperately wanted to be part of the club that wouldn’t have him as a member. In the early 1990s he oversaw the short-lived NBC cable channel America’s Talking and presided over a collection of banal daytime chat shows aimed at bored housewives. Indeed, the most revealing clip in Bloom’s documentary finds Ailes hosting a program of his own, sycophantically sucking up to Cyndi Lauper before busting out some cringe-inducing dance moves.
“Divide and Conquer” posits that the mogul might have remained perfectly happy to rub elbows with C-listers forever, had the Peacock not scuttled his programming and sold the channel to Bill Gates, thus creating MSNBC. A cheesy reenactment of the office furniture destruction that ensued culminates with a revenge-obsessed Ailes sliding up to Australian tabloid billionaire Rupert Murdoch to start their own “fair and balanced” 24-hour news network. And the rest, alas, is history.
An ex-producer from “The O’Reilly Factor” admits that around the office they called it “riling up the crazies” — conceiving of programming to make their target audience feel constantly under attack by frightening, nefarious forces beyond their control. Bloom cuts together damning montages to demonstrate the dopamine hits of fear and resentment provided around the clock to a mostly older, white audience increasingly obsessed with their own victimization. The nuttier the on-air crackpots the better, exemplified by a now contrite, formerly froth-mouthed Fox superstar Glenn Beck, who shows up here to wonder how things ever got so out of hand.
Then there are the women. One of my favorite Artie Lange bits on the old “Howard Stern Show” found the comedian confessing that he couldn’t watch Hurricane Katrina coverage on Fox News because the anchors kept giving him an erection and that felt inappropriate during something so sad. The documentary points out how Ailes outfitted his staff of blonde bombshells with see-through desks and carefully lit their legs underneath. In such an environment it’s no surprise abuse was rampant, particularly given the presence of serial harasser and loofah-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly as the public face of the network.
For a lot of viewers it won’t come as a surprise to learn that America’s most trusted news channel was a haven for disgusting old men hopped up on erectile dysfunction medication chasing women younger than their daughters around desks with trousers at their ankles, all the while peddling racist conspiracy theories confirming the worst prejudices of your out-of-work, alcoholic relatives nobody wants to sit near at Thanksgiving. But Bloom’s documentary does do a fine job of dispassionately laying out the whole sordid saga from end-to-end, complete with the contributions of two crisis management experts who actually quit working for Ailes and refused to take his money because the man was so revolting.
The sad twist ending to this all is that before finally kicking the bucket Ailes stuck us with a President embodying the most toxic tenets of his life’s work, a virulent misogynist wallowing in hysterical self-pity while bleating out paranoid, uninformed assertions with ugly racist undertones. A talking head in “Divide and Conquer” astutely points out, “If Donald Trump didn’t exist Roger Ailes would have had to invent him.” One might even argue that he did.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.