Movie review: Divide and Conquer (2018)

It was with some trepidation that I watched Divide and Conquer. Not due to the quality. (The documentary was outstanding.) But more the subject matter. I was a bit ignorant of Roger Ailes, but I knew enough to know that I would rather not know him more.

The documentary is a fascinating look at his history, both personally and professionally. Interviews with childhood friends and professional colleagues reveal what made him tick. I’ll cut to the chase—though none of this will be surprising—he lived in a world consumed by fear and anger. And paranoia. (His office was built to protect him from bullets and other attacks. I immediately thought of Scott Pruitt from the Trump administration.)

What a sad life to be controlled by fear and anger. Even sadder is that he infected the country with these emotions through the immense control he wielded.

He rose to positions of power with The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. After honing his media and manipulation skills there, he moved on to be a self-proclaimed media advisor to Nixon. Arguably, Ailes was the man responsible for getting Nixon elected by controlling and spinning his look on TV.

He continued to work as a political and executive coach for numerous campaigns across the country. Many of the power brokers in Washington, DC owe their political careers to him, including Mitch McConnell. (McConnell is not portrayed as the brightest bulb in this documentary.) Ailes helped the Bush, Reagan, and Trump campaigns.

In the 1990s, he seemingly moved from political coaching to news. He started America’s Talking, a talk show that was presumably a news show. A few years later, NBC sold the show to Gates, thereby creating MSNBC. Ailes was furious. He ultimately got his revenge by creating Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s backing.

Divide and Conquer then focuses on the power, control, and manipulation that occurred at Fox News. Ailes surrounded himself with men like him. Murdoch protected him, Ailes protected the men he hired. The common thread surrounding them was the blatant abuse of power, sexual harassment of women, and promoting women or giving them jobs in return for sexual favors. It turns out, birds of a feather do flock together.

Various women are interviewed about the sexual improprieties that were rampant at Fox News and committed by Ailes. Some were paid off and silenced through settlements. Former workers at Fox News came forward with allegations. Finally, after decades, the dam broke. Women came forward, including a model (Marsha Callahan) from decades earlier who recounts in the documentary what happened to her, how she had to speak up when women were coming forward, and how her son was proud of her for speaking up and supporting other women. The #MeToo movement in action.

Several women were almost employees but denied employment after they did not welcome Ailes’ advances or agree to his transactional propositions for sex with him and other high-level men in the organization. One woman (Kellie Boyle) recounts that after she did not agree to sleep with Ailes in return for doing business with him, she was blacklisted around town; no one would meet with her or hire her. Her career was ruined. Ailes had that sort of power.

(Side note: It was painful to hear words coming from these women’s mouths that reflected the passive role society teaches women to play. Boyle mentioned that when Ailes propositioned her, she tried to get out of the situation without turning him down right there. Why? She didn’t want to risk offending him. Risk offending him, I thought? What about him just offending you? But I recognized this societal training. Women are taught not to offend and to appear accommodating. I do hope that his indoctrination of women is ending with the current generation of girls. It does no service to girls to teach them to be polite and accommodating, especially when their physical, emotional, or psychological safety is concerned. End of soapbox.)

Ailes was your typical bully, seen clearly when he moved to a small town in New York and preceded to try to bulldoze the town council and influence the elections by flooding them with Republican candidates. He strangely bought the town’s newspaper in 2009. (Well, maybe not so strangely. According to the documentary, Ailes seemed to be in a sad competition with Murdoch. Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. Ailes bought the Putnam County Courier and Putnam County News & Recorder.)

In the end, Murdoch didn’t stand by him when the noose tightened around Ailes about the sexual harassment allegations. His career ended with him being locked out of Fox News. Ironically, he was taken down for sex improprieties—Fox News made its name on the sexual improprieties of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He died a year later from a fall in his house.

Unfortunately, his legacy didn’t die with him. We are stuck dealing with the aftermath of the world that he created. A world of fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. A world of divide and conquer. We are stuck with the political creatures that he created over the last four or five decades. The social and political turmoil in the US has his fingerprints all over them. Divide and Conquer will help you recognize his fingerprints.

Movie review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

You can be forgiven for thinking that the movie gets its name from the unofficial mission of WikiLeaks. Perhaps it does. But the line “we steal secrets” in the movie comes directly out of the mouth of the former Director of the National Security Agency, Michael Hayden. That, Hayden was saying, was the point of all countries trying to provide national security. You must steal secrets from other countries in order to protect your own. Stealing secrets also implies that you must keep these secrets, well, secret.

This documentary is another look at Julian Assange and the organization he founded. It seems more poignant to know the background of the man and WikiLeaks given his recent removal in April 2019 from self-imposed exile in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The movie is an excellent recap of his early hacking life, WikiLeaks, and all of the controversy surrounding him. Of course, the movie ends in 2013 so we are left with a six-year gap.

Also, caveat emptor. Everyone has a slant on Assange, WikiLeaks, whistleblowing activities, and the whistleblowers. To some they are heroes, to others traitors. The reality is muddier but where the mud lies depends on your perspective.

The movie is well made with interviews from people on both sides of the issues—people who formerly worked with WikiLeaks as well as high-ranking people in the national security apparatus. The movie weaves together a cohesive narrative about his early involvement in the international WANK worm through all of WikiLeaks activities to Assange’s paranoia and legal woes.

Adrian Lamao is interviewed about his contact with Cheslea Manning when she was still a private in Iraq under the identity of Bradley Manning. However you feel about what Manning did, the movie provides insightful interviews with Lamao and transcripts of texts between Manning and Lamao. We get a glimpse into Manning’s tortured life and motivations for what he did—as well as Lamao’s tortured decision to turn Manning in.

Assange appears on film in interviews at specific times during WikiLeaks’ spotlight on the international stage. None of these interviews were done for this particular movie. Neither Assange or Manning participated in the creation of this documentary.

We Steal Secrets runs down the various leaks that WikiLeaks participated in during the 2009-2010 time period. In rapid succession, WikiLeaks broke leaks on the Icelandic financial collapse, Swiss banking tax evasion, Kenyan government corruption, toxic-waste dumping, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and diplomatic cables. Then following systematic attacks on Assange and WikiLeaks, both came crashing down.

The documentary suggests that Assange’s longstanding paranoia was finally warranted. The powers that be did not go after the established news agencies (The Guardian, New York Times, etc.) that worked with Assange to publish news about the leaked information. The established new agencies seemed to have been intentionally ignored. The focus was on Assange. A smear campaign on him and WikiLeaks ensued.

Assange however was a master manipulator; it was suggested that he duped his supporters around the world. The landscape got muddier and muddier. Who was being duped? His supporters, or those who believed that his leaks were a danger to our national security (but those by the established media weren’t)?

The irony of course is that the man who set out to unmask corruption in all its forms and demand transparency and accountability was cloaking himself in transparency. He appeared to be part of the same corruption, just in a different form.

Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.

Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

Movie review: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The topic of torture may seem passée. Until you remember that War on Terror has still not ended and GITMO still exists. In some respects, nothing has changed since late 2001.

Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The film uses the kidnap, torture, and murder of a Pakistani taxi driver as a springboard into examining the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.

Dilawar, who earned a living by driving a taxi for his remote Pakistani village, disappeared in 2002. Five days later he turned up dead after having been tortured by US forces. His death certificate, which had been given to his family, listed homicide as the cause of death. Homicide at the hands of Americans. (The death certificate was in English. The family did not know the listed cause of death until a reporter read it to them.)

Dilawar had no rights, no hearing, no trial. He was considered a threat, picked up, interrogated, and tortured—to the point that his legs were described as “pulpified”. If he had lived, his legs would have needed to be amputated.

Taxi to the Dark Side proceeds to interview soldiers who were responsible for the treatment and torture of detainees at the Bagram detention center. They did not have clear rules or guidelines to follow. They did not follow field manuals. Nor the Geneva Conventions. Vague instructions trickled down from above that allowed, even encouraged, what could only be called torture. At the end of the documentary, we learn that these soldiers were eventually made scapegoats, tried, and in many cases convicted of torture. Higher-ups were never charged.

The techniques used at Bagram made their way to Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq where similarly horrible atrocities were carried out. The documentary does not sugarcoat anything that was done. Graphic pictures and short videos show the torture.

Experts such as lawyers, military personnel, and psychologists appear in the documentary, explaining how torture came to be the norm and how the Geneva Conventions were ignored. Torture was defined however higher-ups in civilian and military leadership wanted to define it, which let them state with a straight face on camera that the US does not torture. All of the techniques that were used were never officially approved but were on lists of techniques to use that circulated among detention facilities worldwide.

Fascinating was the bit about how these techniques came to be. Decades earlier psychologists looked into the best ways to essentially break someone. In recent years, putting people in isolation has been recognized as inhumane treatment—isolation can mentally unhinge people and have lasting psychological effects. Related to extended isolation is the use of sensory deprivation. Psychologists discovered, and the US started to use, techniques of sensory deprivation to destroy people.

The use of sensory deprivation explains the use of hoods on detainees (and the use of goggles underneath these hoods) as well as mittens. The hoods, not to mention the goggles, were never about transporting prisoners safely. Without input from your senses, you start to loss contact with reality, which has profound effects on your mental health. Within a couple days, you start to hallucinate.

The basic arguments against torture are also laid out in the documentary: torture doesn’t work and it violates our American principles. Despite the evidence that torture leads to misinformation at best and the realization that torture defies basic human rights upon which our American principles are built, over a third of Americans still condone its use—even after the Abu Ghraib scandal!

That Americans would still condone torture in large numbers is shocking to me and a profoundly depressing realization. If we are fighting the War on Terror to preserve America and its principles, but doing so violates our principles, what is the point of the war? If we do not have our principles, what do we have?

Another disturbing point brought up in the documentary is that Guantanamo was touted as a place to put people that the US captured on the battlefield. But in fact, most of the people who have called Guantanamo home have been people that our allies have handed over to us, not people that we captured. By some accounts, 95% of detainees were handed over by our allies. By other accounts, this number is only 93%.

And by allies, I mean Afghani warlords and Pakistani authorities. For money. They handed over people, and we gave them money for these people no questions asked. The abuse of such a system is enormous. How many detainees have been there for years or decades because someone had a grudge against them back in Afghan (or as one person mentioned, someone wanted their poppy field and turned them in in order to gain possession of the land)?

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was one such person. Begg was seized in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he spent 20 months being tortured. Eventually the British government was able to gain his release.  Begg is interviewed throughout the documentary.

The horror is that not only is US torturing people, which goes against our principles, our military rules, and the Geneva Conventions, but the US is giving people money in exchange for detainees. It is the body count phenomena in Vietnam all over again.

Unlike in Vietnam, success in the War on Terror is not necessarily counted how many people we have killed, but how many people we have locked up. To prove that we are winning, we have to inflate the body count. Here, let us pay you to give us people whether they are involved in terrorism or not. Guilt isn’t important. Numbers are. Just like in our criminal justice system where we value people—anybody—being locked up more than administering justice and getting the right people locked up.

Experts in gathering intelligence speak in the documentary about how misleading information gathered from torture really is. Building rapport is a much more successful technique to extract legitimate information.

One intelligence expert explains how a typical rapport building session goes. The thing is, he states, the life of the person detained is over. They know it. You know it. What is important to the detained person now is negotiating with captors about the things that matter to him: his family. You offer to do things for his family, to take care of them, to give his children education…only if he cooperates. That method of intelligence gathering, the expert explains, is highly successful.

But rapport building does not make for good TV. A small point made in the documentary bears some thought. Popular culture touts not rapport building but torture as a legitimate way to extract information. The ticking time bomb scenario, where we must extract information immediately to save hundreds or thousands or millions of American lives, is a common theme. Would you justify torture if it meant saving lives? Rather a hypothetical question for a situation that has never occurred. But this scenario and the justification of torture has permeated our culture thanks to its portrayal in media and entertainment.

Ironically the use of torture is putting millions at risk rather than making them safer. The more we torture people, the more we create people opposed to the US and willing to attack the US as revenge for the torture and mistreatment that they endured. Since 2001 we have been creating future terrorists because of how we have treated people from Islamic cultures. We reap what we sow, and the chickens will come home to roost.

In the process, we are losing what we are trying to defend. America was founded on rule of law and certain freedoms. We have betrayed this and continue to do so. Without these rules and freedoms, such as habeas corpus, which states that we cannot be detained indefinitely without a hearing, what are we? How is American democracy different from a dictatorship or authoritarian regime?