Tap dancing, lies, and handguns: Inside the new Roger Ailes documentary that is both fascinating and terrifying
- “Divide and Conquer” is a new documentary about the life and career of ousted Fox News chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes.
- Director Alexis Bloom talked to Business Insider about trying to push away the myth of Ailes to show who the real man was (Ailes died within a year of resigning from heading Fox News in 2016 after sexual misconduct allegations).
- But the movie also highlights Ailes’ ego-driven life that included a fortified office and the need to embellish everything.
Exploring the life and times of Roger Ailes, the ousted CEO of Fox News, is important because it shows how one man single-handedly shaped the way many of us view politics and news in today’s world. But how Ailes actually became a titan in media is split two ways: the truth, and how Ailes spun it.
In “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” director Alexis Bloom (“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”) took on the task of pushing away the spin for an unfiltered telling of Ailes’ life — from his political days as the force behind the presidential elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, to becoming the most powerful man in media.
Bloom only knew Ailes by reputation during the rise of Fox News in the 2000s.
“I was fascinated because he seemed to be this mixture of being thuggish and charming,” Bloom told Business Insider. “Sort of a genius and also depraved.”
And this was before former “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes.
Bloom began getting financing for “Divide and Conquer” (opening in theaters on Friday) around the time the titan was about to freefall. The Carlson lawsuit was followed by other sexual misconduct allegations against Ailes, including by one of the network’s biggest names, Megyn Kelly. Ailes resigned in July of 2016 (in the movie numerous women give detailed accounts about Ailes’ alleged sexual misconduct toward them).
By the time Bloom began filming the documentary, Ailes had died (within a year of leaving Fox News). Though the director was disappointed at the time she wouldn’t get a chance to interview him for the movie, she quickly realized that Ailes’ death led to more opportunities.
“There were people who told me, ‘We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Roger was alive,’” Bloom said.
“Divide and Conquer” explores many of the defining moments in Ailes’ life, starting with his challenging childhood, in which suffering from hemophilia made him live in constant fear that at any moment he could die. Ailes’ father also never showed much affection for him, and a classic Ailes story involves his father playing trick on young Ailes by not catching him after telling him to jump off the top bunk (more on that later). After his childhood, the doc looks at Ailes becoming, as one reporter called him, the “Ernest Hemingway of campaign advisors,” as he created the political strategist profession. And then comes Ailes’ first foray into 24 hour news, America’s Talking.
Launched in 1994 by NBC, the cable channel gave birth to many of the programming styles (and on-air personalities) that Ailes would perfect at Fox News. Ailes even hosted a celebrity-focused talk show called “Straight Forward,” which showed his showman side, a trait he had all the way back to his younger days when he would tap dance to stay in shape.
But the good times ended two years later when Bill Gates and Microsoft stepped in and made a deal with NBC to launch cable network MSNBC. Ailes and America’s Talking was shown the door.
“America’s Talking is crucial in understanding what happened afterwards,” Bloom said. “He absolutely hated the suits at NBC. He wanted to, in his words, ‘F–k’ them. It was a huge motivator for him.”
Filled with anger for NBC, Ailes went to Rupert Murdoch looking for payback by fulfilling a dream he had since the Nixon administration: making a dedicated conservative-focused news channel. And Fox News was born.
Bloom highlights what led to the growth of the channel, from the explosive personalities of its hosts like Bill O’Reilly and later Glenn Beck, to the constant theme of division and fear. These elements worked perfectly when covering major moments in American history like the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal and the down-to-the-wire election of George W. Bush against Al Gore, which led to huge ratings.
But even as one of the most powerful figures in media, the movie shows Ailes lived in fear.
According to the doc, Ailes’ office at Fox News was something out of a James Bond movie. It had a steel reinforced door, bulletproof glass windows looking out over Manhattan, monitors to security cameras he had stationed outside his office, and multiple hand guns stashed away. In fact, Bloom said Ailes always carried a gun everywhere he went as he was afraid Al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden, or the gay community were out to kill him.
“It has an almost ‘Dr. Strangelove’ aspect to it,” Bloom said of Ailes’ life. “If it wasn’t so mortally serious it would be funny, but it’s not because this is a real person not an actor.”
One of the most chilling aspects of Ailes’ personality that’s shown in the movie is how easily he could lie and embellish to lift his own mythology. The best example is that story about his father letting him fall from the top bunk when he was a kid.
In “Divide and Conquer,” Stephen Rosenfield, who worked with Ailes in the 1970s, told the story of how one day Ailes confided in him a memory of his childhood when while on the top bunk in his bedroom, his father walked in and told Roger to jump from the bunk, assuring Roger he would catch him. But when Roger jumped, his father moved and Roger fell to the ground. His father then told him that was a lesson to never trust anybody.
But later in the movie we learn that moment never happened. On a chance conversation with her cousin, Bloom found out that Roger’s seminal childhood moment was something that has been used in literature numerous times. Doing some digging, Bloom found a Gawker story that noted the father-son episode in hundreds of books, including the biographies of John D. Rockefeller and legendary actor Peter O’Toole. Then she spoke to Roger’s brother, Robert.
“He said there was absolutely no way that his father would ever have done that,” Bloom said Robert Ailes told her. “He shared a room with Roger and he would have known about it.”
But Bloom said this was what Ailes did most of his professional life: build myths about himself and America. It reminded her of some of the traits of another man full of himself that she did a documentary on.
She was the producer on the 2013 Alex Gibney documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (Gibney is an executive producer on “Divide and Conquer”), and had many conversations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about being in the movie (he eventually declined).
“They both have weaponized information,” Bloom said when comparing the two. “They both know the power of information, they both are incredibly thin-skinned, and they are both egomaniacal. But there are significant differences. Assange thinks of himself as an anarchist, Roger first and foremost thought of himself as a patriot.”