Film Review: ‘Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes’

Variety | 9/11/2018 | Owen Gleiberman
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Roger Ailes — presidential media consultant, creator and guru of Fox News, serial sexual harasser brought low by his ruthless appetites — may have been the most revolutionary image maker in the history of American politics. His legacy is there every time someone in the political arena or the media kaleidoscope tells a lie so shameless you wonder how they sleep at night and a shockingly sizable percentage of the public laps up that lie as if it were ice cream on a summer’s day. That’s called “the way America now works,” and if Roger Ailes didn’t invent it…well, why nitpick his dark achievement? He more or less did invent it, or perfect it, or bring it to a new pitch of down-is-up Orwellian malevolence. There have been many hucksters in the history of this country, but Ailes, who died in 2017, was the visionary of attack dogs, the grand master of political snake oil. It was he who dragged the playbook of fascist propaganda, for the first time, into the white hot glare of televised democracy.

In the piercing and perceptive documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” it’s fascinating, in an outrageous and distressing way, to witness the moment when Ailes transformed the nation’s political landscape virtually overnight. The year was 1968. Ailes was the producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” the first (and, at that point, still only) daytime talk show. Richard Nixon, then in the thick of his presidential campaign, came on as a guest, and Ailes, an ardent conservative since his teenage years in the small town of Warren, Ohio, asked Nixon to stop by his office after the show. That’s when he made his pitch. He said to Nixon, “You need a media adviser.”

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