“I know you’ve already paid to get in here,” Errol Morris told everyone who had just watched American Dharma, his new documentary about Steve Bannon. “But you can all, right now, leave en masse.”
It was an unusual offer. But the Oscar-winning director of The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line had just learned that a protester had handed out flyers to everyone in line at Film Forum on Friday night. “There are real-world consequences to giving Steve Bannon another platform,” the leaflets read. “Please re-consider supporting this film.”
Vice’s resident drug correspondent, Hamilton Morris, who was moderating the Q&A, asked his father if anything like this had ever happened before in his career.
“Where I show up at a screening and people are distributing hate literature?” his dad said, still getting over the shock of having read the flyer. “Basically, this is a thinly disguised form of– what’s the expression again? I know; I’m familiar with it; that’s it– Fuck you, Errol!”
The reviews for American Dharma— in which Morris goes deep into the swamp with Trump’s former campaign manager and White House strategist in much the same way he did with Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara– have been mixed. The negative ones haven’t exactly used the words “Fuck you,” opting instead for headlines like “Errol Morris Lets Steve Bannon Off the Hook” (The New Yorker) and “Errol Morris Gets Played by Steve Bannon” (The Daily Beast).
“What does this mean: got played?” Morris asked the crowd at Film Forum. “Was I his dupe? Was I his bitch?”
Though not all reviews have been negative– the Times acknowledged that while the film “offers no comfort” to Bannon’s detractors, it succeeds as a “psychological thriller, with Bannon its implacable villain”– it’s clear the negative ones have stung. “The reception to this movie,” Hamilton Morris told his dad, “has made you more miserable than any movie I can remember. It’s really put you in a bad mood.”
“Maybe they don’t like it because the movie sucks,” the director allowed, before going on to blame what he refers to as the “I Want My Mommy election” of three years ago. “The easiest, most convenient explanation is that everybody was driven crazy by the 2016 election. Everybody wants to pretend– well, let’s just say a lot of people want to pretend– it never happened. They want it to go away. And somehow I may be wiping people’s face in it, and they don’t like that.”
That isn’t how the film’s critics would put it. Even the favorable Times review noted the true complaint– that the film “gives a platform to a man charged with abetting the spread of hate.”
Morris isn’t exactly a pugilist in the vein of Michael Moore. As he told the crowd at Film Forum, his interviewing style adheres to a “two minute rule” (“let someone talk for two minutes without interrupting and they’ll show you how crazy they really are”) and he generally seeks to create “a situation where someone wants to talk to me, is willing to talk to me, and might tell me something that I don’t know.”
Even if Morris didn’t go into American Dharma looking for a fight, he does clash with Bannon here and there. When Bannon voices disbelief that the director of The Fog of War voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, Morris confesses he was afraid of Trump and Bannon, and he thought she was the best hope of beating them. He shares his belief that Trump’s immigration policy is motivated by racism and hate, rather than being a matter of “maximizing the value of your citizenship,” as Bannon puts it. He gets Bannon to admit that in the early days of Trump’s presidency, they flooded the zone with executive orders in order to overwhelm the media and ram them through. When Bannon dismisses white supremacists as an insignificant fringe element blown out of proportion by the press, Morris tells him, “There’s something incredibly perverse about saying neo-Nazis are a creation of the mainstream media.”
Despite this pushback, Bannon is never forced to defend himself at length. Instead, he whinges about the mainstream media’s coverage of Trump and revels in campaign-strategy victories such as the weaponization of Bill Clinton’s rape accusers. He presents himself as a working class hero, and depending on which echo chamber you inhabit, the film’s spectacular ending can either be seen as an illumination of Bannon’s own destructiveness or a validation of his prediction that a corrupt system will soon go down in flames.
It’s not surprising, then, that Bannon actually liked the documentary, a confession that was met with groans at Film Forum. “Oh, let me make it a little worse,” Morris added. “He liked it a lot.” A Trump voter in the crowd, who during the movie had aww-ed over childhood photos of Bannon, announced that she also liked it a lot. “I’m weary of people all bonding over shitting on the president and the 600 million [sic] who voted for him,” said the woman, who looked to be in her sixties. “And it’s old. This [movie] isn’t.” To that, a younger audience member responded, “You’re old!”
American Dharma, which continues at Film Forum this week, had a rather tortured route to the screen. Morris spent nearly a year seeking distribution, and in February tweeted, “Fuck ’em, I will distribute the movie myself.” (It was eventually picked up by an indie startup, Utopia.) Last year, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival just a day after a New Yorker Festival talk with Bannon was canceled amidst a boycott threatened by Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, and others.
Defending himself then, New Yorker editor David Remnick said that “to interview Bannon is not to endorse” his “‘ideas of white nationalism, racism, anti-semitism and illiberalism.” Not surprisingly, Morris expressed a similar sentiment as he addressed the mystery person who had distributed the flyers outside of Film Forum. “Deplatforming Bannon isn’t going to make it go away. I’m terribly sorry, whoever you are out there.” Then he added nervously: “Is he going to kill me? Is he out there? Is he waiting for me to leave the theater?”
Some have argued that Bannon, who proved to be a master media manipulator while at the helm of Breitbart News, hardly needed more press attention. But Morris had personal reasons for profiling the man whose right-wing documentaries made him “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement,” per Andrew Breitbart. Bannon “became a filmmaker after seeing The Fog of War at the Telluride Film Festival,” Morris noted. “I suppose properly speaking, hearing that, I should have gone somewhere and killed myself.”
Instead, Morris decided to talk to Bannon about some of his other favorite films. He staged the conversations inside of a reproduction of the Quonset hut from Twelve O’Clock High, the World War II movie that Bannon became enamored with during his first week at Harvard Business School. (“Of course all populists, all men of the people,” Morris mocked, “go to Harvard Business School, to Goldman Sachs, and of course they take money from extraordinarily filthy-rich, fascist billionaires. It’s the new man of the people; I would call it the full-of-shit man of the people.”)
In Bannon’s favorite scene from the Gregory Peck film, General Savage (a name Morris found fitting) demands that his soldiers set aside their fear of death in order to defeat the Nazis. Bannon relates this fulfillment of dharma– which he defines as “the combination of duty, fate, and destiny”– to Trump’s rejection of the counterproductive “emotionalism” that drives modern politics. “The permanent political class that control our country is going to stay exactly like it is until you have true disruption,” he says in the film. “It can’t be a pillow fight, you need some killers. You get some killers, you’re going to see some change.”
If Morris doesn’t push back against this idea on camera, it’s because he thinks the irony of Bannon’s reading of Twelve O’Clock High is self-evident. “1949 is the defeat of fascism,” Morris said of the year the film was released. “2016– hmm— is about the promotion of fascism. To me, that’s a kind of sad irony… so this antifascist metaphor becomes turned around 180 degrees. Strange. And I found it was true of almost all of the movies that I watched with Bannon.” (Bannon’s other favorites include Bridge On the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, and Chimes at Midnight.)
In another scene picked by Bannon, from John Ford’s The Searchers, a former Confederate soldier played by John Wayne (“kind of an outcast,” in Bannon’s words) declines to save two women who have been abducted and presumably raped by Native Americans, since the women “ain’t white anymore, they’re Comanche.” Morris doesn’t confront Bannon about it on camera– and instead lets him say merely that he likes the way Wayne’s character never gives up– but at Film Forum he noted that it was telling that Bannon chose “one of the most racist and dark scenes in all of John Ford: They’re not white, they’re Mexican. They’re not white, they’re Chinese.”
Clearly, the relationship between Morris and Bannon wasn’t exactly a “toothless bromance,” as the Variety review put it. That said, they do connect at certain moments. When Morris says he thinks John Milton’s Lucifer “has certain Bannon-esque qualities,” Bannon responds with a laugh and says he often uses the line “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” When Morris calls Trump the “Fuck You president,” Bannon initially chortles, agreeing that “you have to tell the establishment ‘Go fuck yourself,'” but he draws a line when Morris says Trump’s attitude is one of “You want health care? Fuck you! You want clean drinking water? Fuck you!”
Despite such moments of levity, Morris said he generally found his interview subject “humorless,” as evidenced by the time Bannon was reading a book titled The Great Wall. He apparently failed to laugh when Morris quipped, “The Great Wall, it’s so successful: No Mexicans in China!”
Even if Morris found Bannon humorless and “hypocritical,” he admitted to liking him on a certain level. Unlike his least favorite interview subject, the glib Donald Rumsfeld, Bannon “has the decency to be tortured,” Morris observed. “Something drove him crazy. Perhaps it was his failure as an investment banker, perhaps he didn’t achieve all that he had hoped to achieve. I don’t want to resort to pop psychology here. At a certain point he got very, very, very angry. Maybe he was angry all the time, and Breitbart, Cambridge Analytica, the internet, all gave him a vehicle to that anger, and all of the sudden he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s in the catbird seat, as Trump’s campaign manager.”
“At the heart of all this was a desire to destroy everything,” Morris said of Bannon’s motives. “I call Trump, in the movie, the Fuck You president. He is the Fuck You president. Fuck everything: fuck you, fuck the state, fuck the Constitution.”
“This whole thing is a fucked up movie,” Morris said, growing strident. “But it’s the country!”