×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Errol Morris Defends Controversial Steve Bannon Documentary

Errol Morris is no stranger to controversy.

Over the course of his Oscar-winning career, the documentary filmmaker has grilled such political lightning rods as Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, men who have been blamed for needlessly spilling American blood on unpopular wars. In Steve Bannon, a provocateur who is credited with helping Donald Trump capture the White House, he may have stirred up the hornets nest. Morris’ new film, “American Dharma,” is an earnest attempt by the “Fog of War” director to figure out what the hell happened. How did a reality TV star and real estate developer mount the most successful populist campaign since Andrew Jackson?

“We have to look at these people to understand them,” said Morris. “We have to wrestle with their ideas rather than pretend they don’t exist. As much as we may not like to admit it, Trump is president, and if we don’t understand how that happened, we’ll never know how to make sure it never happens again.”

American Dharma” premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival to largely positive reviews. It will screen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it is looking for distribution.

Bannon was eager to participate in the project when Morris first pitched him on the idea. He told the director that he was a huge fan of “Fog of War,” Morris’ look at how McNamara and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations entangled the country in Vietnam. His praise gave Morris pause. He was concerned that by the very act of subjecting Bannon to this type of on-camera interrogation, he risked legitimizing some of his more outrageous views.

“Is he using me?” Morris said. “Probably yes. Does that mean I shouldn’t be doing the movie or does it undermine the whole thing? No, I don’t think so. Ultimately the job of a reporter is to investigate and learn something you didn’t know before.”

It might be scant comfort to critics of Bannon, but “American Dharma” is no puff piece. At several points Morris tangles with Bannon, pressing him on the inconsistencies in an ideology that says it’s all about helping blue collar workers while promoting policies that give tax breaks to big corporations. In one particularly heated instance, Morris presses Bannon on how Trump’s border wall will help create middle class jobs without ever really getting the president’s former consigliere to fully explain the connection.

“The more I learned about the philosophy of Steve Bannon, the less I believed it was coherent,” said Morris. “The question that came up over and over again is whether Bannon is a snake oil salesman or does he believe all of this is a means to an end? A lot of it is pandering, but a lot of it is true belief. I don’t know where he draws the line.”

There’s a darker side to Trumpism and Bannonism than just questionable economic arguments. The nativism that animates the movement has been on display at many key points in Trump’s rise to power. From calling Mexicans “rapists” during his campaign kickoff to refusing to roundly condemn white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville, the president has often played to racial and ethnic prejudices. Bannon, Morris says, is harder to pin down. When he was the editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, he often played on race to animate his far-right readership, but he never explicitly said anything racist in Morris’ presence. There was one remark that bothered the director, however. He was unnerved by Bannon’s characterization of French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron as a “little Rothschild banker.”

“I’m a Jew, there’s no secret about that,” said Morris. “I don’t like to think I’m overly sensitive to anti-Semitic remarks, but there was something about the way that Bannon said it that made me sit upright. Macron was indeed a Rothschild banker [before entering politics] but the use of that expression in that context wasn’t just a dog whistle to racists. It’s a whistle whistle.”

Morris maintained final cut of the film, but he did agree to show Bannon cuts of “American Dharma” to give him a chance to respond to anything incendiary. His representatives made some noise about the section on the Charlottesville riots, but one provocative image didn’t elicit any complaints. To illustrate Bannon’s burn it down mentality, Morris films an American flag in flames.

“I had some reservations about showing that,” said Morris. “But for all of his questions [about the film], Steve did not.”

Morris voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016  and makes it clear that his heart lies with the resistance. Yet there are some areas where they share common ground. Morris’ father died when he was young and his mother raised him and his brother on a school teacher’s salary. He understands the very real economic struggles of many Americans.

“I do not agree with Steve Bannon on most things, but I do think that the middle class has been neglected and left behind,” said Morris. “I’m aware of all of these endemic problems in our society, whether it’s global warming or its the accumulation of wealth by a small sector of the population or it’s a larger and larger income divide. These are terrible things. But is the solution to all that going to be to build a wall?”

Related: 

 

More Film

  • Sony Pictures Classics Buys Michael Covino's

    Cannes: Sony Pictures Classics Buys Michael Covino's 'The Climb'

    Sony Pictures Classics has acquired all worldwide rights, excluding France and German-speaking Europe, to Michael Angelo Covino’s buddy comedy “The Climb.” The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Un Certain Regard Heart Prize alongside “A Brother’s Love” on Friday. Covino directed, co-wrote (with Kyle Marvin) [...]

  • Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Heads for Magical $100 Million Opening in North America

    Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” is heading for at least $100 million in North America during the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend, early estimates showed Friday. “Aladdin” will likely finish Friday with around $30 million, including $7 million in Thursday night previews. Sony’s launch of horror-thriller “Brightburn” should pull in about $10 million for the holiday weekend and [...]

  • Henry Ian Cusick

    'Lost' Star Henry Ian Cusick Signs With Buchwald (EXCLUSIVE)

    Henry Ian Cusick, best known for playing Desmond on the hit ABC series “Lost,” is signing with talent agency Buchwald for representation. Cusick also starred in the CW sci-fi/drama “The 100” and was most recently seen in the Fox series “The Passage.” His other notable television credits include “Scandal,” “24,” “Fringe,” “The Mentalist,” “Body of [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Brazil's 'Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão' Wins Cannes Un Certain Regard Award

    Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz emerged triumphant in tonight’s Un Certain Regard awards, as his grand-scale period melodrama “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão” received the top prize from jury president Nadine Labaki. The “Capernaum” director and her fellow jurors demonstrated eclectic taste in the ceremony, ultimately handing honors to eight of the 18 feature films [...]

  • Dan the Automator

    Heeding the Call of Olivia Wilde, Dan the Automator Scores 'Booksmart'

    Dan The Automator, aka Daniel Nakamura, knows a thing or two about setting a mood. The Bay Area-based producer has worked on projects such as Gorillaz’s debut album, Handsome Boy Modeling School (with Prince Paul) and multiple projects with rapper Kool Keith. Now, Nakamura has set his sights on film scoring, and will make his [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content