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Errol Morris thinks he may have assumed too much with his Steve Bannon documentary

The American Dharma director talks about irony, “fuck you” politics, and his controversial film.

Director Errol Morris and Steve Bannon in American Dharma.
Cinetic Media

When Errol Morris’s documentary American Dharma premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, its subject, Steven K. Bannon, was coming off a volatile year. He’d left his position as chief strategist in Donald Trump’s White House and rejoined Breitbart, the far-right website he’d co-founded in 2007. Then he’d left Breitbart, too, after Michael Wolff’s controversial book Fire and Fury alleged that Bannon had made critical comments about Trump.

Since then, Bannon has mostly focused his efforts on mobilizing the far right in Europe. And the movie played at TIFF the same week that Bannon was invited to appear at the New Yorker magazine’s annual festival of ideas, which stirred up controversy about giving Bannon a platform. He was ultimately disinvited.

Morris has continued to think about American Dharma’s reception at the festival and afterward: The film struggled to find distribution because some audiences and critics had reacted in horror, suggesting that Morris insufficiently confronted Bannon, or maybe even tacitly approved of, or admired him. (In his review, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called American Dharma a “toothless bromance.”)

Morris is no stranger to controversy; in films like The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, he took a similar approach to polarizing figures like former secretaries of defense Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. In American Dharma, Morris gives Bannon the opportunity to speak at length about his view of the world and his favorite films. Sometimes he lets Bannon’s self-contradictions speak for themselves, and at other times intercedes by visually skewering and undercutting his grandiosity. The entire interview takes place in a vast aircraft hangar that we see burning down in the final scenes of the film — the implication being that Bannon sees himself as a take-no-prisoners leader in a real war, just like his heroes in the movies.

Now American Dharma is finally being released outside of the festival circuit, and Morris has plenty to say about the response it has generated, about Bannon himself, and the state of American political discourse today. He discussed those topics and more with me in New York, days before the film’s arrival in theaters.

Alissa Wilkinson

I saw American Dharma in Toronto in September 2018, a long while ago. Both back then and in the time since, I’ve been a little surprised by how many people reacted violently to this film as promoting Bannon’s ideology, or dismissed it as if Bannon had duped you in some way. I saw it very differently.

But it’s struck me that what some people are responding to is less the film itself and more what they think the audience might believe after seeing it — that they might watch the movie and come to think that Bannon is credible person, that his ideas have some merit.

Errol Morris

That was certainly part of it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think about how your audience will interpret a film when you’re making it? Or are you trying not to do that?

Errol Morris

I think about it all the time. The question is whether I think about it intelligently or not. This, I’m less sure about.

Irony is such a weird thing. Should I talk about this? I’ll talk about anything. This reporter comes from the New Yorker to do a profile of me. He tells me that American Dharma is my least ironic film. I say to him, “Okay. That’s annoying. What do you mean? What do you mean it’s my least ironic film? You have to explain this to me.” Irony is my friend. Without irony, I’d be so, so, so alone. I need irony in order to survive in this fucked-up world.

Least ironic. He said, “Because Bannon sees himself as a hero and you portray him as a hero. Usually, you undercut your subject in some way or another, but here you did not.”

Okay. Not ironic. I start muttering to myself, “Not ironic. Not ironic. Not ironic?” I think the movie is just filled with unending irony.

I said, “Try this one on for size.” Bannon’s favorite film is Twelve O’Clock High. I learned about it from Joshua Green, who had just written a book about Steven K. Bannon. Favorite movie. I hadn’t seen it, much to my surprise. Watched it immediately. Watched it several times. What an amazing movie.

Bannon’s tale that you hear in the first minute of [American Dharma] is that he saw it at Harvard Business School. It was assigned to everyone. Maximize shareholder value and kill the enemy, in no uncertain terms.

[Note: In Twelve O’Clock High, Gregory Peck plays the American soldier Brigadier General Frank Savage, who leads his men to brutal victory against their enemies in World War II; in American Dharma, Bannon professes his immense admiration for the film and its take-no-prisoners approach to victory.]

Errol Morris in September 10, 2013.
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Twelve O’Clock High comes out in 1949. You know that they’re talking about a nasty war against Nazi Germany. We won against them. We’re good, they’re evil.

I said to this [New Yorker reporter], “Would this be an example of irony? Gregory Peck’s best role, General Savage, [believes things like] it doesn’t matter what you think, what you hope for, what you want — you just go out there and you take out the Krauts. It’s nihilistic.”

Roll around to 2016, a year that will live in infamy, and you have Bannon promoting the same ideology: Win at all costs. For me, there’s a kind of irony here, because we’re not fighting fascism now. Guess what? We’re promoting it! Is that ironic? A little bit. Maybe. Kind of, sort of.

Okay, so this is my mistake: Thinking that people will be interested enough [from seeing American Dharma] to want to see Twelve O’Clock High, or to think about why Twelve O’Clock High might be Bannon’s favorite movie. I may be assuming too much.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s ironic, but it’s tragic, too.

Errol Morris

Deeply tragic. This is my country. For better or for worse.

For all those people who thought that I was promoting Bannon — maybe I assumed too much. People don’t even notice that the set is a metaphor. How they don’t notice this, how the fuck do I know? I don’t know, but they don’t notice it. As if the movies are some kind of mistake or excess or hopelessly beside the point irrelevant, which they’re not.

I was shocked, actually, surprised by the extent of the nastiness. It’s not entirely unexpected but surprised by the extent of it.

This word has started to appear: deplatforming. Bannon should be “deplatformed.” It is a kind of wet dream, deplatforming.

Alissa Wilkinson

Especially with a guy like that, who keeps building new platforms.

Errol Morris

People want that election to go away. Bannon calls it “the nullification project.” People want to lift up the window on the magic slate and make it go away, as if somehow, poof, it didn’t happen, it’s not there.

I really think there’s this strong element of denial, which is a chasm this movie fell into. That was unexpected. People are still in a state of denial.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think there’s a feeling that if we could just impeach Donald Trump, or get rid of the people in the White House, then things will go back to the way they were — that this was more or less a correctable fluke.

Errol Morris

Someone said to me recently that isn’t it ironic — to use the word again — that progressives have now become conservatives: They just hope that things will go back to the way they were.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s this play off-Broadway right now called Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Have you heard about this?

Errol Morris

I have.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s basically four young Catholic conservatives having an intellectual conversation for two hours. It’s set in 2017 right after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and protests, but it’s in the backyard of a house in Wyoming. One of them is very pro-Bannon.

The title comes from William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of the “fourth turning,” which is one of Bannon’s favorite theories for explaining the world. The theory, in brief, proposes that history moves in four-generation cycles: a “high,” an “awakening,” an “unraveling,” and a “crisis,” the last of which, according to one of the play’s characters, we find ourselves in now. Each phase has a dominant generational archetype; in the “crisis” phase of the present, the millennial generation fills a “hero” role. The pro-Bannon character tells the others they are destined to be the heroes of their own time — the heroes of the fourth turning.

What’s interesting and I think challenging to some audiences about the play is that all of the characters, no matter their opinions of Bannon, think Donald Trump is at best a useful but disgusting stooge, and they all voted for him, because they see him as a big rock in a river that runs for miles — part of an ongoing conflict arc in the history of the world. When I read overviews of people who voted for Trump, it seems some analysts think his election is a one-off incident due to explainable factors, or maybe due to decades of mounting social and cultural anxiety. But rarely do they mention those who voted for him holding their noses because he fits into their millennia-long understanding of history.

Bannon, I think, is a good example of someone who relishes the feeling that he’s plugged into a history where he can be significant. He wants to go down in history. Do you see him that way?

Errol Morris

It’s really hard to come up with analogies. I’m not even sure I believe in analogies. He’s such a mixture of pop history, philosophy, reactionary politics, hypocrisy. It’s amazing that a guy ranting against the so-called party of [the elite annual economics gathering] Davos went to Harvard Business School, worked at Goldman Sachs, bought and sold Hollywood companies, takes money from right-wing billionaires. Is this a man of the people? Is that what this is?

He’s a man of the people a little bit like [Elia Kazan’s 1957 film] A Face in the Crowd, except in A Face in the Crowd [the person who becomes powerful] really is a non-entity. Whereas Bannon is a product of the elites — his despised elites.

Self-deception, delusion, lying, crazy thinking, a little bit of the [idea of the] four turnings are all here [in Bannon]. The four turnings theory to me is, I won’t say complete bullshit, but very close.

I’m really interested about history. What is history? Is history somehow that collection of all of the things that have happened? Or is it something else? Is it a collection of all our ideas about those things that happened?

Alissa Wilkinson

Or our narratives about what happened?

Errol Morris

Our endless narratives about what has happened.

I’m not a big believer in cyclical histories. I’m just not. I was thinking about it this morning again. I believe that the DNA stays the same. We’ve been the same species for, say, a million years or so. Perhaps the same set of gruesome behaviors over a million years.

History does seem to me chaotic, insane, unpredictable, weird. But the idea that there’s this mechanism, this secret mechanism, this wheel of history churning to one phase after another with endless repetitions and cycles — I think it’s bullshit.

Alissa Wilkinson

But you can see how that view of history would really appeal to a guy like Bannon. Cyclical views of history are very fatalistic and totalizing. It’s even in the title of the film because he talks about it so much: dharma, for him, denoting a kind of fate that rules our lives.

Errol Morris

Duty, dharma, destiny. The three D’s.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. So you can see the appeal in particular to people who want to be significant in the world. In the play, the Bannon acolyte character explains to the others that because they are living in the fourth phase of history, they are destined to be heroes. And I think it can be really appealing to some people to imagine that history has determined for us that we will be heroes.

Errol Morris

We don’t determine history, history determines us.

Alissa Wilkinson

But reality is so much more complicated.

Errol Morris

I would dare so say, yes.

Alissa Wilkinson

I teach postmodern theory and culture, and sometimes I tell my students that it’s not human nature that’s changed over time — it’s the circumstances in which we are human. We have the internet now, for instance.

Errol Morris

I think that’s true.

I talk about this with Bannon [in American Dharma]. The [Anthony] Weiner thing has always fascinated me, still fascinates me. The absurd set of accidents — if they are accidents, but they seem to me to be accidents — that Huma Abedin would be Hillary Clinton’s major adviser, that she would be married to Anthony Weiner.

[Republicans] ran an ad, which is in my movie, connecting Weiner’s dick pics with Hillary’s emails. I thought the minute they did that it was over with. I’m not even sure why it wasn’t. It’s really crazy.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the end of Western civilization was due solely to one man’s irrepressible desire to post pictures of his penis on the internet to underaged girls? I don’t know. Maybe.

Alissa Wilkinson

Maybe it’s the least ironic thing that could happen.

Errol Morris

Yeah. Yeah. Not the four turnings, but Anthony Weiner.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve never met Bannon, but the strangest thing about him, to me, is that from where I sit, he seems to be a person who has no real convictions other than a will to power, but is also totally unable to imagine that anyone else might have convictions other than a will to power.

Errol Morris

Maybe if you have no convictions it’s easier to be alive in this world and believe that everybody is exactly like you. It levels the playing field.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve seen people in other contexts say things like, “Why are you so mad about that man who assaulted a bunch of women you don’t even know? He didn’t assault your mother.” It’s this idea that you can only be mad about something if it personally affects you. It increasingly seems to me that there’s a kind of person who cannot imagine that people act according to their convictions, even if their “side” isn’t winning. It’s scary to me.

Errol Morris

To say that I understand what’s going on in America — I don’t. I’m appalled. The attack on the press. The press itself being more or less supine.

I think one of the more intelligent things that I do in the film is I call Trump the “fuck you” president. For all those people who just wanted to tell everybody and everything to go fuck itself, he’s your guy.

Alissa Wilkinson

Another thing you do is undercut the things Bannon is saying about himself, or about the movies, with visual cues — like you said, the set is a metaphor that has to do with his grandiose vision of himself. I don’t know that everyone is used to thinking of documentaries visually.

Errol Morris

I have this belief that if you can do it as a magazine article, you shouldn’t do it as a movie. You should be able to justify why is this a movie, and not a magazine article. Bannon was not a magazine article. It was a movie, with its own visual tropes. It was a movie about movies and about the interpretation of movies.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think sometimes of Bannon as kind of the ultimate bad fan — he watches movies with moral and ethical lessons and seems to take the exact wrong lesson away from them.

Errol Morris

I’ve had so many arguments with people about Bannon and his interpretation of movies. It started early, even before I finished the film. I’d show it to people. I had a discussion about Chimes at Midnight and Bannon’s interpretation of this scene in which Sir John Falstaff is rejected by Henry V. [In the scene, the newly crowned king rejects and banishes his old tutor, Falstaff.] I think [the scene is] sad, it’s tragic.

Bannon thinks Sir John Falstaff is happy that he’s going to be banished because he has done his duty. He has tutored Hal to the point where he is now ready to become King of England.

Alissa Wilkinson

He can then live knowing that he caused the king to be king, that he’s the ...

Errol Morris

The kingmaker. Maybe we’re both correct. But I look at Chimes at Midnight, and I don’t see it that way.

Alissa Wilkinson

I find that scene heartbreaking.

Errol Morris

Then it occurred to me: With the three D’s again — duty, destiny, dharma — you can explain anything, any action.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. And there’s nothing in there about dignity, for instance, or ... I’m going to run out of D’s real quick, but other things, like helping humanity, caring for others.

Errol Morris

Or right and wrong. Morality. Ethics.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which are things you would think a Catholic like Bannon would care about. Or should.

Errol Morris

The whole Catholicism element is so endlessly interesting. I’m Jewish, but my father died when I was very young. I was brought up by my mother and a very devout Roman Catholic housekeeper, who I adored.

There’s something so twisted about the desire to go back to the Crusades. I remember reading years ago an account given by the commandant of Treblinka [the Nazi-run extermination camp]. He goes home for some R&R after killing hundreds of thousands of people in gas chambers and says to the village priest, “You know, I’m killing a lot of women and children and elderly people and ...”

The priest says to him, “It’s war. You have to do what you have to do. Say whatever the number of Hail Marys are.” I remember feeling — in fact, I still feel — this isn’t right. I have such a hatred, I would say it’s hatred, of this whole idea of redemption. That you do X, Y, and Z, and then everything you’ve done is erased. Bad stuff doesn’t go away. It’s like death. Death doesn’t go away either.

Bannon has a weird mindset that I don’t really understand. Almost everything he says — Is this hyperbolic? I don’t think it is — has a kind of racist element. The anti-globalism stuff, I find utterly repulsive. He gets away with it. What, you’re going to save jobs for American workers by building a wall? That’s going to do the trick? Yeah ... It’s all so horrendously stupid, among other things.

One thing that lingers with me, and I think [American Dharma] does a good job with this, is the destructive part of this politics. It is “fuck you” politics. Hey, you out there, go fuck yourself. It’s destructive, and it is about burning the whole goddamn place down. It has an apocalyptic edge to it. I think it’s important to note that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Maybe winning is not nearly as important to him and people like him as everything being razed to the ground in the end.

Errol Morris

Yeah. Everything is in question. Everything is to be destroyed. It’s an angry, nihilistic, crazy way of looking at the world.

I agree with Bannon that America — in this sense I agree with him — that America is fucked, the middle class is fucked, wage inequality is horrifying, and that no one really is doing anything about it. I would say Trump in particular. Saying fuck you to the environment; fuck you, global environment. It’s really, really crazy and it could go on. It’s not over with. People are in denial.

I think my movie is part of that. It’s self-serving of me to say so, but I think that’s what really happened. We want it to go away. We want it to be deplatformed. We’d like to stick our head in a hole in the ground and pretend it’s not going on. So people say, “Errol is too easy on Bannon, Errol gives Bannon a pass.” My favorite was when someone called it a bromance: “Errol is having a bromance with Steven K. Bannon.” This has been a very nutty experience for me.

Alissa Wilkinson

In the movie, he’s the guy who methodically hangs himself out to dry.

Did he ever explain the shirts, why he wears so many shirts at a time?

Errol Morris

No. Of course, we had all these explanations on set. My favorite explanation was given by the wardrobe person. Her explanation: to hide the tail.

American Dharma opened in select theaters on November 1.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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