Errol Morris had secured his place in the documentary hall of fame long before The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. That film was rightly acclaimed for the way it dissected its subject — one of the architects of the Vietnam War — using the subject’s own words. It was compelling and illuminating, offering a roadmap as to how an otherwise decent-seeming person could get so lost that he was eventually capable of despicable actions (lesson 9 was “in order to do good you may have to engage in evil”).
The Fog Of War seemed to justify the idea of listening to men whose views or actions we might find abhorrent. It’s an idea that now seems quaint to some, or at least out of fashion, notably exemplified by Steve Bannon getting dropped from the New Yorker festival after the threat of a mass boycott. David Remnick dropped Bannon just days before Morris’s new documentary about Bannon, American Dharma, was scheduled to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Did this put Errol Morris on the wrong side of history? Was the director of The Thin Blue Line suddenly uncool?
Promoting Dharma, which opened this past week and is still expanding, has put Morris oddly on the defensive, having to justify the idea of talking to a guy like Bannon. Morris himself will tell you himself that he doesn’t subscribe to the school of “deplatforming,” and it’s hard not to agree when he says that ignoring evil isn’t going to make it go away. Yet I can’t say that American Dharma is successful in the way that Fog Of War was either.
Between those two films, Morris profiled Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. As with The Fog Of War, Morris seemed convinced that his subject had gotten so lost in a maze of bureaucratic doublespeak of his own creation that he could no longer distinguish right from wrong. Dharma, a long-form interview with Bannon intercut with clips from the old movies Bannon has used to fashion his worldview (mostly Twelve O’Clock High and The Searchers) sees Morris apply a similar thesis. Morris positions Bannon as a guy so caught up in his own anti-establishment rhetoric that he wants to “burn it all down.”
I’m not nearly as convinced that either Rumsfeld or Bannon are “lost” in anything in the way McNamara was. There seems a simpler reason you couldn’t get a straight answer out of Rumsfeld: he was full of shit, and didn’t want you to know it. It wasn’t some foreign tongue he’d gotten lost in, just a long tradition of imperialist dissembling, using “neutralized” to mean “murdered,” “collateral damage” to mean “murdered,” and so forth.
In Dharma, Morris seems likewise obsessed with Bannon’s inherent contradictions: that he can rail against wealth inequality, that he was so anti-war, so anti-insider, so anti-exactly the kind of people like McNamara, yet virtually all of his actual policy ideas seem to punish the little guy. How can he complain so much about real problems while doing nothing to actually address them, except the racist stuff? Again there seems an easy answer: Bannon does what he does because he’s a racist asshole, and he says what he says because he doesn’t want you to know what a racist asshole he is.
Meeting Errol Morris in real life does provide some insight into his approach. We met in his hotel room at the Sunset Tower in Los Angeles (someone had decided the lobby would be too loud) and I waited well over the appointed time while Morris finished addressing a Vanity Fair writer’s questions about how Morris had gotten caught up in the Elizabeth Holmes saga (Morris had been hired to make a commercial for Holmes’ company, Theranos). I didn’t catch all of it, but I did hear Morris say “I’m a sucker for weird girls.”
Morris likes to talk, see, seemingly to anyone who will indulge him. I ran out of questions pretty early on — he actually told me I should toss out my notes just as we started — and we kind of just went back and forth. I got the feeling I could’ve stayed as long as I wanted. He never seemed eager to move on and was always up for a challenge. Another thing about Morris is that he speaks slowly, in a cadence so at odds with the normal pace of Extremely Online life that it takes time to adjust.
It helps explain American Dharma. There is insight there, but it’s subtle. It doesn’t come in soundbite size or at Twitter speed. And yes, you have to stomach a lot of Steve Bannon’s bullshit in order to get it.
I was wondering why you didn’t call this movie The Fog of Bullshit?
It is The Fog of Bullshit, but I prefer American Dharma. At one point we thought of calling it American Carnage, after Trump’s inaugural speech. “American Carnage” just seemed not to capture the real horror of Bannon. American Dharma, the idea that he could reduce everything to dharma, destiny and duty, seemed to be the real fog of bullshit. Because once you put all that nonsense in play, you can justify anything. Oh, that was just the fulfillment of dharma. That was just destiny at work. He’s a mix master of nonsense. And what amazes me is that people thought I’m promoting him. I don’t quite see it that way.
I didn’t see you as promoting him, but I do wonder what you think that we’re going to discover about him.
I think it’s a lot of things. Understanding the 2016 election, I believe, is essential. How is it that one of the worst things that has happened in my lifetime… how is it that that happened? I’m still puzzled. The interviewer for the New Yorker said to me, “This is your least ironic film.” Which annoyed me, because I thought, “Au contraire, this is perhaps my most ironic film.” Putting Bannon in the Quonset hut of his favorite movie — maybe a failed attempt at irony, but… that he can take a movie about victory over Nazi Germany and use it as the platform for the 2016 election, winning at all costs… my head starts to get all squishy inside. Have campaigns always been this rotten? Or is this some new phenomenon that we are seeing for the first time?
Do you think it was the rottenness of the campaign that was different, or do you think that their mission was more rotten? It seemed like there’ve been rotten presidential campaigns in the past, but at least they had an idea of what they would do once they won. In this case, I don’t know what Steve Bannon wants to do.
I kind of do know what he wants to do. It’s a program to destroy everything. He even compared himself to Lenin. He says that. Do I believe it? To destroy everything and give me all the power? Yes, I do believe it.
To me, the second part seems much closer to it. When he talks about the elites having all the power, and he wants to give it back to the common man–
No he doesn’t. He wants to give it to himself.
Exactly. So is that destroying or is that just replacing elites with himself?
I would say both. I would say there is a real destructive impulse at its core. A kind of indiscriminate crazy anger. Unfocused, but in the end, lethal. There’s this feeling throughout American Dharma of just some amazing unthinkable hypocrisy, manipulation, self-deception. I think it’s one of the most powerful portraits that I’ve ever constructed.
You say self-deception, but I wonder whether he himself is deceived. Like when he says that he’s a populist, and that he wants to redistribute wealth, I don’t know if I hear self-deception or just bullshit.
I was a salesman once upon a time. When you’re selling, it always helps to believe in what you’re selling. And the human capacity for credulity is unfettered. Do I think he believes some of this stuff? Yes, I do. I call it the pie graph question. What part of Bannon is snake oil salesman, what percentage is true believer? And I think it’s a mixture of both. But if I had to say what’s the bigger piece of pie in that pie graph — snake oil salesman.
What do you hear when Bannon is going on and on about seeing the West Point uniforms that had “Made in Vietnam” on them?
The story is basically, he’s gone to West Point, his daughter is on the volleyball team, a cadet. He looks over into the corner and there are these boxes, and stamped on the boxes are “Made in Vietnam.” And he’s very vehement, and he tells us that he looked at that with horror. Okay. So the question is, what was the horror? Was the horror that this was an implacable foe that we fought for years and years, and now has become a trading partner? People, very cynically, by the way, say that in Vietnam we were just fighting a war to create new trading partners for the American economy. Cheap labor. So is Bannon’s horror that this is all part of some globalist conspiracy? End tariffs, destroy the American labor force, embrace non-whites as part of our economy? That’s certainly part of it. I actually, and people disagree with me about this, I felt there was a racist element in it too.
Well, yeah! I mean, I thought that was the main element.
Well, thank you. You took it the way I took it.
You could see it in his face. He wasn’t getting angry about trade or globalism, he was angry that they were Vietnamese.
I felt there was almost a sexual component to it as well. That these… half-breeds, these non-whites, are making these fabrics touching my daughter’s most intimate parts, or something like that.
Right, and if you break it down, he was against the war. And then we pulled out of the war, and then we got them as trading partners anyway, which he also hates. I don’t know how you connect all his disconnected anger other than with racism.
This is not atypical for Bannon, this hodgepodge of ideas. I find the anti-globalism so weird. It is really, at its heart, a bullshit ideology. I don’t disagree with your title suggestion. But still there is this destructive anger. He’s preaching something that has some angry core, when he talks to the angry voices on the internet, which he effectively harnessed. And I do believe that that’s in Trump as well.
But isn’t that just textbook fascism? That you take economic anxiety and then blame some “other,” foreigners or whatever, and then utilize that band of angry people to help you achieve power?
Yes, it is. And it seems to work. That’s what’s so scary about it. What’s been distressing to me about making this movie is how people somehow thought I was promoting Bannon.
It seems less about that you were promoting him than people questioning the value of talking to him. Do you think your film justifies the idea of talking to a person like Steve Bannon?
I think it’s essential to talk to people like Steve Bannon, to try to figure out what’s going on in the world. Because if the alternative is sticking your head in the ground? That’s not an alternative. That’s just stupid. And self-defeating in the end. Because he won’t just go away.
Did you hear that leaked audio of Richard Spencer from this week, from a couple of days after Charlottesville, where he just sounded completely unhinged and insane? And then you kind of compare that —
Don’t you think there are good people on both sides?
Ha, no. But when people compare that to the way Spencer usually comes off in interviews —
Right. So when you stick a camera in his face and ask him fair questions, doesn’t it just give him a chance to paint this phony picture?
Okay, but what’s the alternative? It’s a version of the same argument. In the movie, Bannon says that neo-Nazis are a creation of the mainstream media. No, they’re not. They’re fucking neo-Nazis. We should pay attention. I’m not going to say that I know the secret sauce to make it all go away, I don’t. But each one of us, in our own separate ways, has to do something. If I’ve done the wrong thing… I don’t think I have… I’m sorry. But I would be even sorrier if I had sat on my ass and done nothing. I actually love this country. I feel this country is being destroyed in front of my eyes. It’s deeply surreal. Trump breaks the law and people become involved in some pedantic discussion about whether he really broke the law or not.
When Bannon is going on about the honey badger, what are you thinking? When I watch that, and he’s talking about a YouTube video like it’s very important to his world view, I’m just thinking, “This guy’s a fuckin idiot.”
It is a kind of fortune cookie bad meme ideology at its heart. And then when you get to the movies, I think about the scene that he himself picked, from one of, in my opinion, the greatest American movies, John Ford’s The Searchers. The Searchers is a really complex and interesting movie, but what scene does Bannon pick as his favorite? He picks John Wayne, who is pursuing what happened to his niece, who had been kidnapped by the Comanche. He goes to a fort and he sees these girls who have recently been freed, they too had been kidnapped by the Comanche. John Wayne, who I suppose Bannon identifies with, looks at them with horror and contempt. He looks at these little girls and says, “They’re not white,” and he turns away. His face descends into darkness, into shadow. It is the most racist moment in the movie, and Bannon picked it.
Joshua Green, who wrote this really excellent biography of Bannon, called The Devil’s Bargain… someone took me task and said, “Well, why couldn’t you do something like Joshua Green?” I said, “Well, Joshua Green loves my movie, and said all these nice things about it, including that it was the correct way to interview Stephen Bannon.”
Which is what way?
It’s to let him talk. To find ways to tease out various issues. I wrote a piece that appeared in Air Mail, which is Graydon Carter’s new publication, about interviewing, and what is the so-called “correct” way to interview anybody. I don’t think there is a correct way to interview anybody, I really don’t. But I know for myself, that the most interesting things that I’ve heard in interviews haven’t been in response to adversarial questions or in trying to get them to contradict themselves. It’s been in just setting up a place where a conversation can occur. Where people feel free to tell you stuff that you may not have heard before.
I find Bannon’s comments about movies endlessly revealing. No one writes about it in their reviews. They think the movie (clips in American Dharma) are just filler, like I couldn’t come up with an idea of what to do. Ooh, I know, I’ll just show them some movies and fill the time with bullshit talk. No, the movies are the heart of all of this, the essence of it.
Bannon comes from the world of movies. Ronald Reagan was a movie star. Schwarzenegger is a movie star. Trump is a reality television guy. Roger Ailes worked on the Mike Douglas Show. What is the connection between these pillars of conservatism and schmaltz entertainment?
Well, many of them have a very… and this is something that works so well in movies… simplified view of the world. We show a scene from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It’s a simple view of the American frontier, of good and evil, of right and wrong. Why does Bannon love Reagan? Why did he make his first movie about Reagan? Because Reagan was seemingly uncomplicated. Communism is bad. The Soviet Union is corrupt, and we will destroy them. It’s a Manichean world view, where good is clear, evil is clear, and all that remains is to steadfastly go to war and win.
Are we just getting caught in that trap where we’re constantly asking how much of the things Bannon says he actually believes, instead of… I don’t know, fighting against him?
I think that Bannon is right about one thing. He’s right about the middle class being betrayed by America. I have a lot of trouble with his supposed ways of fixing that. I grew up in the ’50s. My father died when I was two years old. My mother brought up my brother and myself on a schoolteacher’s salary. Could she have done what she did today? The answer is no. So what happened? Income inequality. Wealth inequality. We all can agree that there’s something radically wrong with America that needs fixing, but I cannot agree that anything that Bannon proposes, or anything that Trump proposes is a solution.
If I could characterize the Trump era with one word, I would say shameless. Please don’t sell me this bill of goods that you’re helping the middle class. Give me a fucking break. It’s scary. When people say to me, “Well, he’s going to win a second term.” I go crazy. It’s time for us not to be scared.
You said that you voted for Hillary in the primary partly because you were afraid.
I voted for Hillary in the primary, and I voted for Hillary in the general election, yes.
Would you still vote for her in the primary?
Knowing that Trump won? No! I would vote for Bernie! I voted for Hillary because I thought Bernie couldn’t win. Maybe Bernie could’ve won. I don’t know anymore. I think whoever it is, it’s got to be better. Did I ever think that I would hope that Romney could become president of the United States? No. But I think he would be a preferred alternative to what we have now. I like a diverse society. I like there being an international community. Say there was no such thing as global warming. Say it was false, which is isn’t, but say it was false. Is it so bad that the people of this planet would work together towards some goal? That there would be some connection between people? I mean, I sound like an idiot or whatever, but the United Nations is a good thing, it’s not a bad thing. International arms agreements are a good thing. Global trade is a good thing.
Maybe we just need a giant squid, like in Watchmen.
I somehow think that the solution is not going to be with mollusks.
…Isn’t squid a cephalopod?
Yes, a cephalopod is a mollusk.
Wow. I guess you learn something new every day.