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?”



More Film

  • Noah CentineoNickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Show,

    Kids’ Choice Awards 2019: JoJo Siwa, Noah Centineo Take on Bullying

    This year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards was full of positivity and encouragement to be yourself. DJ Khaled, known for his upbeat mantras, hosted the 32nd annual awards ceremony alongside JoJo Siwa at USC’s Galen center. Siwa accepted the award for favorite social music star. Siwa said in her acceptance speech, “I get hated on every [...]

  • Us Scriptwriter and Film-maker Larry Cohen

    Larry Cohen, Cult Horror Writer-Director of 'It's Alive,' Dies at 77

    Larry Cohen, best known for his work as a B-movie producer and director in the ’70s and his later work in screenwriting, has died. He was 77. Cohen’s friend, actor and publicist Shade Rupe, confirmed the news, which was announced in a post to Cohen’s official Facebook page. Rupe said Cohen died in Los Angeles [...]

  • Captain Marvel

    Box Office: 'Captain Marvel' Shatters $900 Million Milestone

    Brie Larson’s “Captain Marvel” continues to do heroic business. In its latest box office milestone, the female-fronted superhero tentpole zoomed past $900 million in ticket sales worldwide. “Captain Marvel” brought in a mighty $87 million globally this weekend, including $52 million from international territories. It has now generated $589 million overseas for a global haul [...]

  • Us - Lupita Nyong’o - cr:

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend

    Talk about scary good. Universal’s “Us,” the second directorial effort from Jordan Peele, pulled off a stunning debut, generating $70 million from 3,741 North American locations. That haul is enough to land it the second-best opening weekend of the year behind Disney’s “Captain Marvel” ($153 million). The psychological thriller about a family confronted by a [...]


    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content