Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes suggests that the seeds for what would become the Fox News founder’s conservative media empire might have been planted right here in Philadelphia in 1968.
That’s when Ailes, a producer for The Mike Douglas Show, buttonholed presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, a guest on the program, and convinced him that he needed a TV-savvy guy to “produce” his presidential campaign — make it camera-ready.
Nixon agreed, Ailes was hired, launching a media/campaign consulting career that left Republican clients like Mitch McConnell (and dozens of others) forever indebted to him, and happy contributors to the cable network Ailes would one day create.
Something else, as a victim attests, originated in Philadelphia — Ailes’ predatory habit of harassing and coercing young women, offering career opportunities in exchange for sex. This is the behavior, when finally exposed, that would lead to his ouster from the cable-news juggernaut he created. (Ditto Fox host Bill O’Reilly, whose alleged behavior mirrored Ailes’ own, and, in the opinion of Divide and Conquer, was allowed to fester in a newsroom culture that Ailes cultivated.) This was the compulsion that ruined Ailes, but there were others, and Alexis Bloom’s movie contends they helped him succeed in an era of partisan cable news.
Divide and Conquer starts in Ailes' hometown of Warren, Ohio, a once-thriving factory town hit hard when industry departed, leaving a residue of Rust Belt anger and resentment that he understood and knew how to exploit.
The film’s account of Ailes’ childhood also cites his hemophilia, and the movie posits (weakly) that living with the disease gave Ailes an intuitive and special understanding of fear, an element that became an important Fox News theme — fear of outsiders, fear of cultural erosion, fear of American decline.
Divide and Conquer revisits Ailes' fury at being supplanted at a nascent NBC cable channel when Bill Gates and Microsoft bought in to create MSNBC. He lost his nightly show — American’s Talking — and so he left, holding a grudge that never abated.
In Bloom’s view, Ailes was often driven and fueled by revenge. The film’s most enterprising and revealing passage recounts how Ailes moved to Cold Spring, N.Y., and launched a campaign of petty opposition to area politicians, buying up the local paper and using it as a weapon.
Elsewhere the movie relies on previously reported information as it delves into Ailes' history of sexual harassment, revisiting the damning accusations of Fox personalities Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly that led to Ailes' downfall (he died a year later, in May 2017).
In the end, Divide and Conquer is hurt somewhat by Bloom’s failure to find sources within Ailes' inner circle at Fox. Fox ex-pat Glen Beck turns up to express regret at the addictive partisan outrage that is Ailes' legacy — what Beck calls the genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. In the end, though, Divide and Conquer has the feel of a documentary on the outside, looking in.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Directed by Alexis Bloom. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 107 minutes
Parents guide: Not rated
Playing at: The Ritz at the Bourse