Review by Sean Boelman
Regardless of what one feels about his opinions and actions, there’s no denying that Roger Ailes is one of the most influential figures in modern American politics, even after his death. Michael Barnes’s new documentary Man in the Arena takes an interesting approach to its subject, exploring more of his political musings than his effects on the media landscape.
The film tells the story of Fox News founder Roger Ailes with an emphasis on the way he and his media empire came to alter the course of history by influencing the public opinion of candidates in elections. This isn’t the first documentary about Ailes, nor will it be the last, but by focusing on the part of his career that is often swept under the rug, Barnes makes his movie stand out.
At nearly two hours in length, the film is certainly overlong, and there are some elements that could have been cut out. Portions of the movie that detail how Ailes built the Fox News empire and how allegations that surfaced against him caused him to fall from grace add little to the narrative that wasn’t already known before.
Instead, the film is at its most compelling when it focuses on the elections and how Ailes and Fox were pivotal forces in getting three Presidents elected. In the modern political landscape, there is increasing distrust in the media and their role in the American government, so these historical case studies are just as relevant now as they were then.
Barnes’s stance on Ailes himself is also quite intriguing. There is no such thing as a fully objective documentary, there is always a stance by which the filmmaker is approaching the subject, but Barnes makes the interesting decision of not villainizing Ailes. Of course, the movie frowns upon his manipulative and abusive actions, but recognizes how complicated everything else about Ailes is.
The documentary paints Ailes in an almost tragic light, as an ambitious man who brought about his own downfall with his arrogance and character flaws. Whether or not one actually likes Ailes will clearly depend on how their opinions align with Ailes’s, but Barnes does offer some interesting counterpoints for either side of the spectrum.
Barnes tells his story with a combination of extensive archive materials and interviews with people who worked with or knew Ailes. And while this is a very traditional and by-the-book documentary technique, it’s very polished and professional, and Barnes does a good job of presenting the material in a cinematic way.
Man in the Arena is an interesting documentary exploring the political side of journalism. Even though it could have been about thirty minutes shorter had it cut the parts of the story that are already well-documented, it adds some new insight to the conversation as a whole.
Man in the Arena is now available on DVD and VOD.