Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes


Roger Ailes, kingmaker.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia)  Glenn Beck, Austin Pendleton, Sarah Ellison, Alisyn Camerota, Warren Cooper, Linda Newman, Karyn Kesler, Kenneth Johnson, Felycia Sugarman, John Cook, Stephen Rosenfield, Kellie Boyle, Glenn Meehan, E. Jean Carroll, Terry Anzer, David Shuster, Joe Muto, Lydia Corona, Bo Dietl, Richard Shea, Marsha Callahan, Tamara Holder.  Directed by Alexis Bloom

There is no doubt that Roger Ailes is a polarizing figure. Among conservatives, he’s a genius and kingmaker who was responsible for the elections of Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. He is also the creator of Fox News, the virtual house network of the GOP. For liberals, he is the devil incarnate, a man who learned his trade from Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and whose “fair and balanced” tagline for his network was of the utmost irony.

So depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall on, you are going to look at this either as a hatchet job or as a call to arms. It’s very difficult to review a biographical documentary about someone like Ailes without your own politics getting in the way. I will be as honest as I can be; I have no love for Ailes and his legacy, but then again, neither does the director – as she makes abundantly clear.

Much of the film revolves around the sexual harassment scandal that would eventually bring one of the most powerful men in America down. Although we don’t hear from former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson who initiated the suit, we do hear from Fox News personalities Glenn Beck, Alisyn Camerota and David Shuster. We also hear from women who have accused Ailes of sexual coercion, going all the way back to his days as a producer on the Mike Douglas Show which at the time was the only talk show on daytime television.

Even the soundtrack, which sounds appropriate for a thriller, makes no bones about where Bloom’s sympathies lie. While she does a pretty good job of summarizing the man’s career, there is no attempt to talk to people who loved Ailes – and there were many. Although Beck was willing to go on camera and discuss some of the darker sides of Ailes’ nature, no other big Fox News personality did, nor any members of Ailes’ family. We therefore get a fairly one-sided presentation of the man.

Ailes passed away in 2017 before this documentary came out; a hemophiliac, a fall in his home caused him to bleed to death. By that time, however, he had been rendered persona non grata at the network he created. That he survived only a year after his fall from grace is not surprising.

I get the need to vilify the man; his lack of regard for the truth and for facts in favor of building a narrative that fits the conservative point of view is disturbing, and we are living with the fruits of that poisonous tree. Ailes took his cues from Adolph Hitler and P.T Barnum, telling the big lie to appeal to man’s baser nature, and changed the world. Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that he is very much responsible for the world we live in even now, three years after he’s gone. That, at least, is a legacy.

REASONS TO SEE: A chilling look at the manipulation of the electorate. A mixture of admiration and horror.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor/director Austin Pendleton and Ailes attended grade school together.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bombshell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lancaster Skies

Fahrenheit 11/9


Trump supporters wearing their thoughts on their sleeves.

(2018) Documentary (Briarcliff/AnnapurnaMichael Moore, Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Bill Maher, Bernie Sanders, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Wendy Williams, Roger Ailes, Megyn Kelly, John Podesta, Roger Stone, Paul Ryan, Joe Scarborough, Larry King, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ashleigh Banfield, April Cook-Hawkins, Brooke Baldwin. Directed by Michael Moore

 

During the 2016 Presidential election, one of the lone voices on the left predicting that Trump would win was gadfly and documentarian Michael Moore. The favored son of Flint, Michigan takes the time to illustrate just how this came to pass when virtually nobody thought it would – other than Trump and his followers.

This is perhaps Moore’s most serious documentary, with less of the stunts that characterize his other films (although he does attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and dares politicians to drink a glass of Flint water) and gives the movie a bit of a bleaker turn than most of his other work.

Moore doesn’t pull punches and he doesn’t always play fair with his facts; some of his commentary is a bit of a stretch and like that guy whose sense of humor isn’t always apparent, you’re never sure if he’s kidding or not.

Moore spends most of the movie illustrating how corporate America has essentially bought our democracy and has turned it into their own private ATM, making sure legislation favors the wealthy and the corporate at the expense of the working class and of course the poor – two classes that are virtually indistinguishable now. He does show glimmers of hope with the Parkland students rising up and leading a massive national march for gun control, and profiling politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who might just make a difference in years to come.

Those who lean to the right in their political thinking are not likely to see this, but then again, this movie isn’t really for them – it’s more of a call to arms for the left which Moore criticizes has become complacent and self-destructive. We must all stand together, he opines – or as the Founding fathers might have added, we will all hang separately.

REASONS TO SEE: Adequately explains what got us to this point. Smart and occasionally mind-blowing.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattershot and at the end of the day, probably doesn’t accomplish what it set out to.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film made its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore hosted a special premiere in his home town of Flint, Michigan (which figures heavily in the movie) four days later.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fahrenheit 9/11
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Life, Itself

The Brainwashing of My Dad


The assault of the information age.

The assault of the information age.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Matthew Modine (voice), Jen Senko, Claire Conner, David Brock, Craig Unger, Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes, Reese Schonfeld, Rick Perlstein, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Thom Hartmann, Jeff Cohen, Thomas Medvetz, Steve Rendell, Edward S. Herman, Carol Wallin. Directed by Jen Senko

The phenomenon of right-wing media isn’t a new one, but in many ways it is at an apex currently. With Fox News being the dominant news channel in the United States, with Rush Limbaugh being one of the most popular radio personalities in the U.S. it’s a wonder that any liberals get elected at all.

Jen Senko noticed that her dad Frank, a World War II veteran and as a young man a Kennedy Democrat, was changing. He was getting more irritable and less tolerant of the opinions of other. He often sent profanity-laced messages to his wife when she’d disagree with his opinions online; he often denigrated the opinions of his own family and grew increasingly more xenophobic. What changed?

Senko, being a documentary filmmaker, thought the question was worth putting on celluloid. She places the blame squarely on Limbaugh, whose radio program her father began to listen to on his long commute from work, and on Fox News, which he often stayed up all night to watch. She feels very strongly that the messages sent out by FNC and right wing conservative talk radio actually changed the way her father thought.

She looks back at the history of mass media in this country and at one critical event; the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration, for example. The Fairness Doctrine required that holders of broadcast licenses present issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner, and that an opposing viewpoint was given the opportunity to air. Under the guise that this violated the constitutional right to free speech, doctrine was abolished in 1987.

She also looks at Ailes, a media consultant under the Nixon Administration, and his determination to establish a right-wing presence in the media, which was perceived as being left-leaning. Under his direction, corporations and wealthy private citizens were encouraged to promote right wing agendas and influence institutions like the courts, higher education and media outlets. Ailes would go on to be hired by Rupert Murdoch to run his fledgling Fox News Channel, a position Ailes holds to this day.

Senko interviews a number of philosophers, media experts, linguists and grassroots activists who are out to stop the flow of misinformation and distortion they see flowing out of the right-wing media. Some of the information coming from these sources is eye-opening and thought-provoking. The more affecting moments in the film, however, come from family members who have similar stories to Senko about mainly fathers (and sometimes mothers) whose personalities changed after watching Fox News and listening to conservative talk radio, often parroting the intolerant views of Limbaugh and his ilk. These family members became suspicious and hostile towards anything non-white, non-Christian and of course, non-conservative.

Senko is an intelligent filmmaker who shows the progression of right wing media from its infancy to its current clout, and shows how the entire progression was orchestrated deliberately. Certainly it is impressive how well the architects of the current conservative media completed their mission not only to bring a right-wing voice to the media but to essentially drown out the left-wing voice.

Certainly there is a great deal of intelligence and thought behind this film and some of the conclusions that are reached are downright scary. However, I’m not 100% convinced that the change in the political landscape that we have seen is entirely due to “brainwashing.” While I would tend to agree that what is coming from Fox News, and other right wing commentators is essentially propaganda (and to be fair, left wingers are guilty of that as well), I can’t entirely agree that the process is brainwashing to the degree that the filmmakers claim. Some of the anger, the fear and the xenophobia that the right wing has played upon in its run to political dominance had to have been present all along, and that’s not really addressed. You can’t prey upon people’s fears if they aren’t already afraid.

Certainly this will be dismissed by those already leaning towards the red state of affairs; those who are diehard blue-staters will have their worst fears confirmed. The filmmakers make some very cogent points and I admire the way they break things down but I’m not entirely sure that they did all their homework. After all, there are no dissenting points of view here and isn’t that what the filmmakers are railing against?

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and at times chilling. Will likely energize left-wingers.
REASONS TO STAY: Presents information in essentially a typical documentary style. Conclusions may overreach the facts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some challenging thematic material, and occasional bursts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animated sequences were provided by Bill Plympton.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weapons of Mass Deception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hello, My Name is Doris