Roger Ailes was chairman and CEO of Fox News, America's most powerful partisan political network, but "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" makes the shrewd choice not to view him in strictly ideological terms.
Rather this gripping documentary, directed by Alexis Bloom with the veteran Alex Gibney serving as an executive producer, focuses on Ailes as a manipulator brilliant enough to make Machiavelli jealous, as well as a relentless harasser of women.
None of this is exactly news, but Bloom has worked hard to get extensive interviews with many people who knew Ailes well, including sympathetic colleagues like commentator Glenn Beck, so much so that we feel we've never really fully understood the man and his powerful influence on America's political landscape until now.
The result is a compelling but chilling film, one that is inevitably disheartening and disturbing as it details both how Ailes came to understand the nature and power of fear and how he honed his craft until he could sell fear to his fellow citizens like it was going out of style. Bloom, a veteran doc producer whose previous directing work was the very different Debbie Reynolds/Carrie Fisher "Bright Lights," made the smart decision to tie the film together with a first-person voice-over compiled from Ailes' own words and read by "The Wire" actor Peter Gerety.
Ailes grew up in bucolic Warren, Ohio, where unlikely classmate actor Austin Pendleton remembers him as "witty, intelligent and handsome. We all wanted to be like Roger."
That background helped Ailes hone what became one of his great gifts, the ability to empathize with the emotions of non-elite Americans, to understand that "we have a deep need to return to the basics: God, family, country."
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But there was darkness in Ailes' life as well. His father was a bully and a tyrant, and the boy himself suffered from hemophilia, which kept him periodically housebound as a child and filled him with terror at the thought of bleeding to death.
Drawn to TV early in his career, Ailes started as a production assistant on "The Mike Douglas Show," an early syndicated daytime talk show where he learned the valuable lesson that "if the audience likes you they'll forgive everything you do wrong."
When Richard Nixon, still smarting from his TV-influenced loss to John F. Kennedy, came on the show, Ailes jumped at the chance to meet him.
A student of how persuasively director Leni Riefenstahl had filmed Adolf Hitler in "Triumph of the Will," Ailes told the former vice president that he could shape him, make him palatable to the fickle TV audience.