It’s interesting that the new documentary about Roger Ailes is coming out at the same time the dramatic feature “Vice,” about Dick Cheney, is playing in theaters. The two men had parallel careers as influential architects of the America we live in today.
Both came out of the ashes of the Nixon administration, having learned lessons about secrecy, power-brokering and media manipulation. But while Cheney became an un-showy operator (except for the occasional F-word barked on the Senate floor), Ailes went into TV, where his more flamboyant personality could find its place.
That Ailes was a creepy sexual predator is also a part of his story, but “Divide and Conquer” director Alexis Bloom doesn’t tilt the film toward the more lurid aspect of Ailes’ life. That might’ve sold more tickets, but Bloom keeps the movie more — oh, what’s the phrase — fair and balanced.
As a young man, Ailes worked for the “Mike Douglas Show,” where he practically tackled Richard Nixon when the former vice president appeared on the syndicated program. Ailes convinced the famously media-clumsy Nixon that TV mastery was the key to political success.
Ailes was right, and his blend of subtle persuasion and dirty tricks led to the founding of Fox News, at the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. It was Ailes’ genius to understand that an emotional approach to journalism would result in high ratings and political agitation, a concept that made Fox the biggest thing in cable news.
The film can’t explain Ailes’ drive — there’s not too much amateur psychology on display, which is probably a good thing. One remarkable feature of his life is that he lived with hemophilia, which may have resulted in a certain do-or-die urgency in the way he lived.
Anytime you might be in danger of sympathizing with Ailes, the movie provides testimony from one of the women he pressured into having sex with him. There’s also a bizarre episode about how Ailes tried to bigfoot his way through the media landscape of the small town where he kept his vacation house — even at that level, he couldn’t stop forcing himself on people.
“Divide and Conquer” assembles a collection of talking heads, including former Fox host Glenn Beck, who manages to make his segments seem more about himself than about Roger Ailes.
Like his meal ticket Richard Nixon, Ailes resigned in disgrace, giving his life a suitably Shakespearean arc. This documentary provides a useful description of the man, although it still feels incomplete — or maybe too soon after Ailes’ death (in May 2017) for a reflective take.
It’s not the last word: Russell Crowe stars as Ailes in a new miniseries, and John Lithgow plays him in an upcoming feature film. Maybe those great actors can unlock a character that “Divide and Conquer” can’t explain.
“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” (3 stars)
Documentary portrait of the disgraced Fox News chief and sexual harasser, from his beginnings as a Nixon aide to the scandals and high ratings at Fox. The film can’t explain Ailes’ character, but it provides a useful overview of an influential career.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Showing: Northwest Film Forum