In His Own Defense: Errol Morris on 'American Dharma' and Its Polarizing Subject, Steve Bannon
Between 2017 and 2018, Stephen K. Bannon, a former documentary film distributor (Werner Herzog's The White Diamond, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, Steve James' Reel Paradise), former film producer (Sean Penn's The Indian Runner), former head of the conservative media website Breitbart News, former manager of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and until mid-2017 chief strategist for now-President Donald Trump, was considered a Shakespearean figure. Some dubbed him "Trump’s Brain." Time magazine dubbed him "The Great Manipulator." Many believed then, and still today, that Trump would never have won if not for Bannon. But not long after he left the White House, the narrative would turn. Now Russian influence was to blame for Trump's victory, and Bannon quickly faded from public view. But throughout his 15 minutes of media infamy, he was someone people knew little about, but were both fascinated by and terrified of.
In the midst of this, two documentary films were made that explored this dark wizard behind the Presidential curtain. Director Alison Klayman (Take Your Pills; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) and producer Marie Therese Guirgis (On Her Shoulders; Author: The JT Leroy Story) would take a vérité approach, while Errol Morris (The Fog of War; The Unknown Known) would bring his trademark interview style and visual aesthetic to the task. Morris' American Dharma was first out of the gate, premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018, while Klayman's The Brink premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019.
Both films deliver their intention of demystifying Bannon in their own way. But while The Brink found distribution and was in theaters by the end of March 2019, American Dharma seemed destined to never be distributed.
There were signs as to why Morris' film was seemingly sentenced to purgatory. The day before American Dharma premiered at Venice, New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick rescinded an invitation to Bannon to be interviewed at the New Yorker Festival after a slew of celebrities scheduled to appear, including director Judd Apatow and actor Jim Carrey, tweeted they would back out if Bannon was to be allowed a platform to, as Apatow put it, "normalize hate." Meanwhile in Venice, Morris' film received a standing ovation. Then, over the next few weeks, reviewers echoed the notion that what Morris had done was exactly what Remnick had refused to do—given Bannon a platform. Owen Gleiberman, writing in Variety, called the film a "bromance" between Bannon and Morris, and Richard Brody’s New Yorker headline read, "Errol Morris Lets Steve Bannon Off the Hook." Distributors didn't just shy away; one told Morris that their employees threatened to quit if they were to distribute it.
So maybe K. Austin Collins, in his review of American Dharma in Vanity Fair back in September 2018, was somewhat correct: Maybe Morris didn't get "the memo that when it comes to the current administration, our old methods of challenging power—in both journalism and art—won’t work." But it's not just political discourse that shifted; social discourse has become more brutal, less forgiving these days. We no longer respectfully disagree with others; we block and unfriend anyone who challenges our beliefs.
We spoke with the 71-year-old Morris to discuss American Dharma—now having finally found a distributor willing to take it on: Utopia. It should be noted this was not the usual Errol Morris we've encountered in the past. We all have hits and misses in life, and not all of Morris' films have been lauded as some others. But this time around, Morris seemed both heartbroken and frustrated. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: I've been poring through some interviews you've done over the last few months, where you've repeatedly said that maybe you're stupid because you didn't think people would react to this film with the level of hostility as they have.
ERROL MORRIS: Well, I wouldn't rule it out. Look, I may never, ever get to talk about the movie as a movie, which is depressing. That has been a non-question from the day it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, which was the day after David Remnick made his own effort to "de-platform" Bannon. So I suppose instead of talking about my film, I could get involved in an endless argument about "de-platforming," about the First Amendment, about looking at this Trump movement square in the face in an effort to understand it. But I'd rather just go on and make other films.
But it also scares me. I'm scared by Trump and by Trump's policies and I'm also scared by the reaction to them. What to do about it? And this may be an example of how and why I am stupid. I thought I could contribute to the ongoing discussion of what's going on in this country by making such a film. But I will never forget the Venice Film Festival press conference. No one wanted to talk about the film, really. They were more interested in condemning the film and condemning me for having made it. And I remember this person saying, "I learned nothing! You made this, and I learned nothing!" So is that a statement about his in-educability, or is that about my impoverishment as a filmmaker? I don't know. I think there's a lot to be learned from that movie. I learned a lot from making it.
I've said, I knew there would be shit storm; I just didn't know there would be a shit hurricane. That day after Venice was one of the strangest days of my life—to go from that standing ovation to later that evening reading some of the nastiest reviews that I have ever seen written about anybody. It was as if I had committed some unpardonable sin—not just simply for making the movie, although that was part of it, that was bad enough—but the unpardonable sin of actually talking to Bannon without condemning him. As if that represented tacit approval. And in case anybody is interested, I do not approve. I find Bannon and his philosophy, his policies and that of the Trump Administration to be abhorrent, repellent and nasty. Some reviewer said that this movie was so suspect that it really discredited everything I've ever done. Not only was the movie itself bad, but [so was] everything I've ever done.
What really interests me is what's going on in the world. Bannon represents something that—whether you like it or not—is significant. People may be in denial, want to pretend that Trump was not elected, or it was a false election, or a corrupt election, and on and on, but whatever you want to say, he was installed as the 45th president of the United States—and I would add, with terrible, terrible consequences.
D: Do you think the response to your film—not to sound conspiratorial—is part of a shrinking of the media landscape of what is politically acceptable to discuss and make films about these days? Even David Remnick, in his memo explaining his decision to "de-platform" Bannon, conjured up the days when someone like Dick Cavett thought it was important to interview George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
EM: First of all, what is the kind of film that I made?
D: A film that had a lot of trouble getting distribution and that seems to have been shot down for being made.
EM: Well, as far as the shrinking of the news landscape, there is a kind of growing intolerance, in general, probably both on the left and the right. It's disappointing to me as a filmmaker. I try to make interesting films. I try to think about what I'm saying in a film, and to see that all kind of obliterated in favor of just partisan gobbledygook is depressing. There's a lot to be said about Bannon and there's a lot to be said about the movie. The movie is, in a way, a very despairing movie. Maybe the most despairing movie that I've made. It's a movie about being frightened.
To me, evil is always something to be examined. I try to understand people. I've interviewed lots and lots of murderers. I've interviewed lots and lots of crazy people. I've interviewed lots and lots of really good, honorable, decent, heroic people, as well. Maybe I'm just fascinated by people. Could I condemn the behavior of Robert S. McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld? Easily! It's much harder to try to understand them. And sometimes by trying to understand them, I become, if anything, sympathetic with them. Certainly more empathetic with them. Certainly in the case of McNamara, but not so much with Rumsfeld. The more I talked to Rumsfeld, the less I liked him. Bannon is still a mystery, however. Who is he? Performance artist? True believer? Snake oil salesman? Crazy person? Maybe all of that and more.
So Bannon goes to Harvard Business School, and what do they show him there? Twelve O'Clock High. This is not a film class; this is Harvard Business School. Most of their classes are like "How To Conquer the World" classes. I had never seen Twelve O'Clock High. And here is something that utterly amazes me, and I think to speak to the laziness of a lot of reviewers, they have no interest in seeing Twelve O'Clock High. Even people who like the movie have asked me, "Why is it set in this Quonset hut?" It's in the Quonset hut because this is his favorite movie! And this movie has something to tell you about what's happened to our country and the world.
D: Let's talk about Twelve O'Clock High. What I don't understand is that from the beginning the aircrew is at the brink of collapse, having been sent on too many missions with no rest, a lot of them are dying, and the generals say they need someone else to come in and figure out what their breaking point is—which seems to be where they already are.
EM: They needed a hard-ass to come in and tell them to die and stop complaining about it.
I started to see Bannon as a kind of crypto-Leninist. If it's all war, all part of a war effort, it's not about empathy or sympathy; it's about achieving an objective. Everything Bannon talks about: Why did Trump win? Because he could just beat the shit out of everybody... and didn't care. I've watched Twelve O'Clock High now many times. And I would ask myself, Why isn't this a Nazi movie? It's made in America in 1949, right after the war. In many ways, it is a deeply nihilistic and moral movie based on, Well, if the ends don't justify the means, then what does?
D: That [Gregory] Peck has a breakdown at the end of the movie because he does, by the end, learn to empathize with those under his command. That, to me, is sort of the point of the movie.
EM: He breaks down, but they achieve their objective. But at what cost? An enormous one. We win the war. And Bannon sees the world in militaristic terms. I would even go so far as to say apocalyptic terms. We're in some kind of insane struggle, and he's going to win by fair or foul means. Some of the imagery in American Dharma, to me, is just utterly frightening. Like when you see his sickly smile when they're ushering the Clinton accuser women into that press conference.
Why am I using movies, people ask? Because he's a filmmaker, a film producer, a documentary director. He's somehow engaged in ideas. There is a kind of Hegelian element to the crazy. Bannon's ideas of cyclical history— "the four turnings." You watch these movies he loves, which are just filled with violence. Guillotines, crucifixions, firing squads. Inside of his head is some kind of ultimate nightmare, but it's something that came out of America. It didn't come out of the ex-Soviet Union.
D: There's also his Catholicism. There's a long tradition of that kind of violence and blood in Italian and Spanish movies, for example.
EM: He has this desire to re-fight the Crusades. Let's go back to the 12th century.
D: Speaking of the set, I wondered if Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, which you executive-produced, in some way inspired or influenced you in putting Bannon within a set of his favorite movie and using films to reveal himself?
EM: Yes. I'd like to think Josh and I have influenced each other. He is someone I vastly admire. Films are a way in.
D: Wouldn't you say we're all having a bit of an apocalyptic perspective these days, not just Bannon? Look at all the movies and TV shows. Whether it's politics or global warming, everyone's got the apocalyptic blues.
EM: I think you're absolutely right. I have a very strong apocalyptic tendency myself. Some guy saw American Dharma and said to me, "You know, Bannon isn't burning down that Quonset hut; you are." I said, "Guess what? You're right." When Bannon says we're going to have a revolution and tear it all down, I look for visual representations of that idea. So kill me.
I am very happy and proud of this film. I think it's one of my best films. I think it's quite beautifully shot. I've wanted to work with [Production Designer] Adam Stockhausen for years. He did a fantastic job; when I wanted to re-create the Quonset hut, he went for it. Among other things, he's been Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson's production designer. So when I said I wanted to burn the fucker down, he was all for it. I always wanted to burn a set down and now I've finally gotten to do it.
D: When Bannon talks about revolution, it's like some perversion of the 1960s revolutionaries. It's like he grew up with the same background as many baby boomers, but whereas they went to the left, he veered to the right.
EM: I had a conversation with Noam Chomsky. Chomsky left Cambridge; he used to be here all the time. He moved to Tucson. He's in his 90s. Bannon was down in Tucson for a number of different reasons, and Chomsky and Bannon met, which had to be some kind of great meeting—like Elvis and Nixon. Chomsky said to me he agreed with Bannon on a lot of the problems but certainly not with any of his proposed solutions.
I wish I could tell you I had a firmer grasp of Bannon's insanity. Joshua Green works for Bloomberg and wrote The Devil's Bargain, this book about Bannon, which I read just prior to making American Dharma. I talked to Josh, and it was from him I first heard about Twelve O'Clock High. He said to me that this was the right way to interview Bannon, and he liked the movie. The wrong way, and I've seen a hundred interviews with Bannon, and they're all the same: They're all based on this kind of dumb-ass idea of "I'll outsmart him," or one of my favorite pet peeves, "I'll ask him the difficult questions." Well, everyone asked him the difficult questions and they got the same non-answers, evasive answers. Doing this kind of thing is not about difficult questions. Not even about questions at all. What I'm doing is giving someone an opportunity to talk and to express themselves and reveal something about themselves that I might not know and that might be of interest. And the way to do that is never with difficult questions.
Let's talk about interviewing versus interrogations. The best interrogators were always those who let people talk and allowed a relationship to develop between themselves and that person they were talking to. It was never the Torquemada idea—we'll apply the strappado, the thumbscrews or the iron maiden, and we'll get all the information we need. It's not satisfying dramatically to an audience. It's not about figuring what people want, making a calculation and then giving it to them. It's about thinking. It's about trying to think through stuff to understand stuff.
D: Is Bannon as important a figure as the media portrayed then, and now?
EM: If you could come to me after Fog of War or The Unknown Known and say this is so many decades after the Vietnam War and after McNamara's departure from government, is he in any way important? And the answer is yes. And you could say the same thing about Rumsfeld. What bothers me about what you're asking is that somehow I made a current-events movie, which I did not do. I think there's something deeper and something more important about the movie. And something deeper and more important about Steve Bannon—or, if you like, something shallower and more important about Steve Bannon. Regardless of whether you or I think or anyone else thinks he's the mastermind behind Trump's victory, he has a lot to tell us about that victory. And if you think we've put that behind us, you are 100 percent wrong.
If the question is whether he is as relevant now as he was a year ago, I would ask, In what sense? Is the movie as relevant now as it was a year ago? I would say, Absolutely. And why? If I told you I understood the movie completely, I do not. But it seems at the heart of it is having a really, truly destructive impulse. A tear-it-down philosophy. When he refers to Trump as an armor-piercing shell, this is true now as it was then. What's really interesting and frightening is how unscrupulous these people are. You can go to the hyperbolic version that all politicians left and right are unscrupulous, but there's something about this movement that is really frightening, in the sense that they will say and do anything. When I say that Trump is the "fuck-you president," and Steve Bannon is the supreme advisor to the "fuck-you president," it's saying they're waging a revolution. It's not a clear revolution. Who is it a revolution for? And by what means? And Bannon's getting money from right-wing billionaire after right-wing billionaire. Once you adopt this crazy principle of dharma, destiny, duty, then what does anything really mean? Are we all in service of some kind of strings being pulled by unseen forces? I do understand the need to say "fuck you," but at the same time, individual need has to be balanced against the common good.
I would agree that people saw Bannon as a bigger threat than he was, except for one thing—Trump won that election in 2016 and Bannon played a very significant role in that win. Will it be repeated? Will he have the same influence in the future that he's had in the past? Probably not. Did people overreact in the sense that the sheer horror of Trump's election caused them to react in crazy ways? Absolutely. I share that horror, I might add. Although my response to it is, albeit, different. I think the movie is as important as it's ever been. What produced Bannon? What produced the Trump victory? It's very odd because now the left has become conspiracy theorists rather than look to ourselves as being in some way causally linked to this.
D: You said earlier that you learned a lot from making this movie. What are some of the things you learned?
EM: Certainly from the experience of having made the film and trying to distribute it, I've learned that the country has gone crazy, possibly both the left and the right. In my own small way, I think it's essential that we talk and examine these things. There's no benefit from pretending it's not happening or that it doesn't exist. Maybe Trump is a particularly virulent and pernicious form of it, but it is a form of it. It's a kind of idea of hopelessness and futility that obviously some significant fraction of America must feel.
I learned that these people like Bannon have enormous appeal and that they have truly effective strategies that seemingly work. If we are to defend ourselves from them, we better think very carefully how Trump managed to become president in 2016. I don't want to hear Putin made him president. I don't want to hear about the Electoral College, or this, that, or the other thing. The reality is that whatever they did, he's sitting in the Oval Office today. And we'd better be damned careful that this doesn't happen again. I would say it's a big mistake for Americans to disregard this movie. What should be done is to think carefully what the movie is talking about and to figure out what to do—all of us.
D: And to wrap this up, what role do documentary filmmakers have to play here?
EM: They can try to tell a story about what they think is going on in this country and the world. That's what I've tried to do. If people refuse to listen or don't want to listen, I'm sorry, maybe I didn't do a good enough job, but I tried. Maybe the best any of us can do is to bear witness to what's going on around us.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman.