Wherever Steve Bannon appears, controversy follows. The former advisor to President Trump, who was also involved in his election campaign, has most recently been in the headlines for being booked and then disinvited to speak at the upcoming New Yorker Festival. Errol Morris’ documentary on Bannon, “American Dharma,” recently had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and will have its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday.
Morris is no stranger to controversial subjects. He won an Oscar for his 2003 film “The Fog of War” about the Vietnam-era secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Among his subsequent projects was 2013’s “The Unknown Known,” about Donald H. Rumsfeld, two-time secretary of Defense who served during the launch of the Iraq War. Morris’ 1999 film “Mr. Death” was about execution technician and holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
“American Dharma” — dharma being a concept, Bannon explains, that combines duty, fate and destiny — centers on an extended interview of Bannon by Morris that veers from lightly cajoling to outright combative as the two discuss politics, the media, Trump and Bannon’s grand worldview. They also talk through a syllabus of Bannon’s favorite movies, including work by Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and John Ford.
Morris recently got on the phone from his office in Cambridge, Mass., for a conversation about his new film ahead of its world premiere. This interview occurred before the outcry over the New Yorker Festival.
To what extent do you see this film as connected to your McNamara and Rumsfeld films?
Well, I made all of them. It's certainly connected in that way. Did I see it as a trilogy? Not really, although a number of people have said to me, “You know, this is a trilogy,” and in some respects, yes, three movies there. Not three secretaries of Defense — two secretaries of Defense and an advisor, a very prominent, powerful advisor to President Trump in the early months of this administration and his campaign manager in the period just before the 2016 election.
There's an immediacy to this film that's really unsettling.
Absolutely. I agree. I should ask you, I'm getting in the habit of trying to interview my interviewers, maybe it's an occupational hazard, but do you think it should be a trilogy?
Yes and no. It makes sense to want to declare them a trilogy, because of the fact you're retrospectively trying to make sense of well-known political events and interviewing controversial figures. But there is something different about this Bannon film, you could easily make the argument that it exists on its own.
I agree with you. I think it's both. I think there's something different about it. There's certainly something different between “Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known,” but there's something different about this for so many reasons because we're in medias res. Things are happening all around us that involve the Trump presidency and also involve Steve Bannon. It's ongoing. You can't put a period at the end of this sentence. And it's more frightening to me. I mean I made the movie telling myself I just could not sit on my hands through all of this. I had to do something and I had to at least try to come to a better understanding or a deeper understanding of what is going on.
Do you hope that the movie will not only help people understand what happened with the 2016 election, but also help people understand what comes next, where we're going from here? Is reexamining 2016 still useful or do people need to move their energy onto something else?
Well, it's asking the question does looking at the past help us to understand the present? And the answer is unequivocally yes. Steve Bannon himself says somewhere in “American Dharma” that one of the ways that we learn about the present is by examining the past. And I would agree. For me, I'll just speak for myself here, understanding the 2016 election when Donald Trump was elected, it was for me, a horrifying moment, frightening, depressing and this was true for a lot of people.
Was there anything about Bannon you were surprised by?
I suppose I'm constantly surprised by everything. He's well read. I hesitate to use the word thoughtful. But he is clearly an intellectual. I would say a somewhat perverse intellectual. But why he's doing all of this, I don't know. There's a mystery here.
Are you concerned about criticism of the movie that it is too favorable to him?
But it's not favorable to him. I can't worry about what everybody or anybody is going to say about this movie. It isn't. And why people would say that, I have no idea. Of course people can say anything they want to say.
But are you concerned that you're presenting him as he would want to be seen? In particular by talking about movies he likes or shooting him in this dramatic way alone in a military building — have you cast him in the movie that he would cast himself in?
Well, the task of making a movie, for me, is not creating just adversarial material, there's plenty of stuff out there if that's what you want. I would rather learn something about Bannon, about his motivation, about how he sees the world. The movies are a Rorschach test, or you could certainly see them that way. We discuss a whole number of movies in “American Dharma” and inevitably — inevitably is a strong word — and inevitably we see them differently, which is in itself of interest.
He sees “Chimes at Midnight,” that scene at the end of “Henry the IV, Part 2,” completely differently from the way I see it. “Bridge on the River Kwai,” ditto. “12 O’Clock High,” ditto. It's a way in, it's a way to think about character and ideas. Adversarial arguments often tell you nothing, I mean they certainly can declare the righteousness of the interviewer and maybe they have a certain kind of dramatic quality that appeals to an audience, but usually they reveal little.
I'll be honest with you, the movie really messed me up. I was very disturbed and upset ...
Oh, I like to hear this.
... and it feels funny to ask you this question, but what am I supposed to do with those feelings? How would you hope people respond to the end of the movie or what do you hope people can do with the feelings that this movie is going to create?
I hope the feeling that we're left with is that we live in very perilous times and that there are forces out there, very powerful and frightening forces that must be listened to. I think it's as simple as that, we need to fight back and we need to listen. There are things that I agree with. Is it difficult for me to say this? Yes. We all know that the middle class has been left behind. We know that the distribution of wealth since World War II has favored the rich at the expense of the middle class. You could blame both Democrats and Republicans. And what's to be done about it?
Something must be done about it, but the policies that are being recommended by the Trump administration certainly are not going to resolve these problems. We're not even going to ameliorate these problems. If anything they'll exacerbate them. People have to come to a deeper understanding of why that election occurred and what we can do to prevent this from happening again and again and again and again.