On November 9, 2016, documentarian Errol Morris awoke, like so many of his fellow citizens, afraid. But unlike the liberal lot of us, he didn’t take to wailing on social media. Instead, he set out to try and figure out how the hell this all happened.
Three years later, American Dharma — his examination of Steve Bannon, the architect of Donald Trump’s presidential victory — is in theaters. Morris sat down with Bannon inside a Quonset hut, a replica of the one in Twelve O’Clock High, a 1949 World War II film starring Gregory Peck as hard-assed General Frank Savage, sent to whip a bedraggled bomber unit into shape before they’re sent to an ill-fated combat mission. (“We’ve got to fight, and some of us have got to die,” Peck says.)
It’s Bannon’s favorite film, one that he believes to be the very definition of manhood, with an underlying message he sees in the war between workaday grunts and let-them-eat-cake elites that led to the “blunt-force trauma” of Donald Trump.
Bannon’s dharma, his nature of reality, is the central focus of the intense conversation with Errol Morris. The film doesn’t reach the Robert McNamara mea culpa in The Fog of War, or even the glimpses of Donald Rumsfeld questioning what he’s wrought in The Unknown Known, so it’s taken critical shrapnel for being nothing more than a platform for a white nationalist to shoot off his mouth. In Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes, “It’s hard to escape the feeling that Errol Morris got played.” The backlash led to American Dharma being shelved for a year, generally unheard of for a filmmaker of Morris’s stature, and it upset the director to no end. (I mean, he won the Oscar for The Fog of War and has directed some of the best documentaries of the last 40 years — including The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Gates of Heaven.)
I’m not a professional film critic, but the idea that Bannon got one over on Morris feels simplistic. The 16-hour tête-à-tête doesn’t spiral down into a shouting match, nor is it even contentious through and through. But Bannon’s political theories are unmasked for what they are: the freshman-year Philosophy 101 ramblings of a white dude who finds Joker stirringly intellectual. Any man who refers to himself as an “apocalyptic rationalist” and claims the secret to understanding America is in the Breitbart comment section — please see Wallace, George — ain’t exactly Thomas Paine.
I recently spoke with Morris, now 71 and as profane as he is avuncular, to discuss dharma, duty, destiny and all the bullshit contained within.
Let me start by asking about Bannon’s obsession with Twelve O’Clock High.
It’s a man’s movie, it’s a man’s-man’s movie. General Savage is Gregory Peck’s greatest performance. He’s much better than in that wimpy To Kill a Mockingbird.
Is this really how Bannon sees himself, as a quiet, stoic, do-your-duty type?
I don’t think “quiet, stoic, do-your-duty type” is the correct way to characterize Twelve O’Clock High. It’s the idea that winning is everything. WINNING. IS. EVERYTHING. General Savage isn’t stoic. There’s nothing else besides winning, winning and perhaps more winning.
The movie is fundamentally nihilistic, perhaps even amoral, but in Twelve O’Clock High, they’re fighting the Nazis so that makes it okay. Gregory Peck makes this big speech to these airmen who are going to be sent out over Nazi Germany, and in all likelihood will die, so just consider yourselves already dead. You’re not supposed to think. You’re not supposed to reason. You’re supposed to do and die.
It’s interesting that they’re taught that lesson at Harvard Business School. Week one, let’s all hunker down and watch Twelve O’Clock High. How big a leap is it from maximizing shareholder value to destroying the Nazi war machine? I don’t know. You tell me.
There were certainly German companies at the time that did both.
There are companies in the U.S. that manage to do both today. I still get three papers delivered to the breakfast table — the Wall Street Journal, the “failing” New York Times and the Boston Globe. There’s Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in a congressional hearing clearly coached to say “I’m sorry,” as if it’s a magic slate. Do you say “I’m sorry” and everything is forgiven and everything is erased? I don’t want to hear you say you’re sorry. I want you to go to jail.
It seems to me that Bannon would consider apologizing the ultimate sign of weakness.
In his case, yes. Don’t apologize, go out there and do what dharma and destiny tells you that you have to do. It’s a kind of nutsy, disturbing philosophy to turn the Twelve O’Clock High campaign to conquer fascism into a campaign to elect a fascist. Interesting, thought-provoking, way to go, far fucking out!
I’ve read plenty about Bannon, but your film was the first time I ever watched him viscerally talk about Trump. I don’t get the sense he has any great respect for the man. Was he then just the vehicle for Bannon’s “revolution”?
He describes Trump as a “blunt-force object” and an “armor-piercing shell.” Look at this imagery, pugilistic war talk. What the hell is really going on? Do we need a revolution? Well, it would be nice if things could get better in America without having to destroy America.
The most interesting thing to me about American Dharma, especially in comparison to The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, where you get McNamara and Rumsfeld at least wrestling with their legacy, is that there’s not a lot there with Bannon. “The revolution is coming” is the third line in every comic book movie. Is this supposed to be profound?
Bannon dresses it up in some sort of hipster philosophy: Burn it all down. And we now live in burn-it-all-down times. When I say in the film that Trump is the “fuck you” president, I think I’m right. Now, I like saying fuck you as much as the next guy. There’s an enormous satisfaction and enjoyment in saying, “Hey, go fuck yourself!” But somehow, when that becomes a political philosophy, the “fuck you” philosophy…
Especially when it’s pointed down, not up.
I don’t even know where it’s pointed. In Bannon’s mind, it would be pointed at the elites, but that’s all bullshit. He went to Harvard Business School. He was a corporate banker. He produced Hollywood movies. Who the fuck is this guy? You took money from the Mercers. This is the new populism? You’re floated by right-wing billionaires, that’s the new populism? Fascism? Great. Terrific.
Were you aware before you guys sat down together that Bannon is a big fan of The Fog of War?
It was a total surprise that he was at the Telluride Film Festival in 2003, the year I was there with Robert McNamara. I even called my friend Tom Luddy, co-founder of the festival, to check and see if Bannon really bought a ticket. Was he really there? Yes, he was.
It’s fascinating that the lessons he took from Fog of War weren’t specifically about the military-industrial complex, or the efficiency of the war machine, but rather just that nebulous rich elites like the Clintons were to blame.
Rich people. Some that he doesn’t like, but others he endlessly sucks up to. Bannon, if anything, is a consummate skilled suck-up. He’s been sucking up all his life, and there’s no end in sight, really. He’s sitting there like the cat that swallowed the canary, a shit-eating grin on his face as the Clinton accusers file in just before the second debate.
It’s all crazy. The 2016 election was crazy, but not for the reasons people think. Maybe the Russians, Cambridge Analytica or one of 50 other entities weighed in and had some control over the election, but the most disturbing thing of all, for me, is the basic idea that history is insane. I don’t believe in destiny, duty, dharma. Fuck that. History is absolutely, totally insane. And what could be a better illustration than the crazy ad I put in my movie linking Anthony Weiner’s dick pics with Hillary’s emails? The minute they forge this connection — Hillary Clinton’s emails and “Pervert” Anthony Weiner’s penis together at last! — I thought, Fuck me, such dark shit is going down. The election is over. It’s almost unimaginable.
Do you feel any different about the state of America a year on, seeing as how the Trump administration has incompetently bungled things?
If anything, the last couple of years have taught us that incompetence is a wide field that welcomes so many people with different ideas from all different walks of life. I’ve been shooting in the U.K. for the last month…
A Brexit thing?
Not specifically a Brexit thing, but certainly it clouded everything going on while I was doing my project. I had multiple discussions about which country is more fucked up at the moment: the U.S. or the U.K. Being a competitive American, I feel it’s worse here than it is there, because after all, the U.K. is just trying to destroy themselves — and I’m sure they’ll be successful — whereas here, we’re trying to destroy ourselves and everybody else. In terms of stupidity, I have to give our country the edge. Congratulations, Americans.
You say this with a smile on your face.
The only thing that makes life worthwhile is the fact that the world is insane, and it’s gratifying at times to see how unbelievably insane it really is. Is this a bad thing to say?
I used to believe the Martin Luther King quote about the arc of the moral universe, but it’s hard to…
History is kind of an impossible zigzag, often to nowhere. I wish I could say maybe things are getting better, but from the perspective of where we sit today, I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. There used to be a modicum of rationality in public discourse, but I think that’s a thing of the past. Maybe it was always this way, and I’m the delusional one. Gore Vidal has that great term — “the United States of Amnesia.”
Did you find your time with Bannon worthwhile?
It sounds like a question asked after a marriage collapsed. [Laughs] I rather like him. He has an inherent basic charm; at times he’s really well-spoken. I found him interesting in that Bannon plays it as if he’s really from some strange apocalyptic end-of-days Christian book. Does he really believe this stuff? Is this a sales tool? You laying a product on me? Are you out on the street peddling vacuum-cleaning bags and suction hoses? What the hell is this?
Is Bannon getting rich off of all of it?
Yes, he’s gotten richer than he was, and he was already rich. Evidently, being a fascist never hurt anybody’s pocketbook.
When controversy came up — with American Dharma not getting distribution, and some of the negative reviews — you said it was “hurtful.” It’s an interesting word that goes beyond anger.
It was hurtful! But not the critical bullshit about not asking difficult questions. No, what hurts is that you’re making movies, and the people watching them have no understanding of who you are and what you’re doing. It’s depressing.
Is it a juvenile belief that your movies are meant to deliver a resolution or some type of pronounced takedown of your subjects?
I don’t have that belief. I don’t make them for that reason. The whole notion is a fallacy. I did a piece for Airmail called “Why Talk to a Pariah?” about the nature of interviewing. People are confused about what interviews should or could be. They can be anything, but I know what they mean to me. They mean an opportunity to investigate, to learn something. If I’m asking the same expected questions and anticipating the same expected answers, it’s just pandering.
Do you feel like American Dharma came close to what you wanted?
I’ve got something out there, but I’m not sure it’s as much as I’d like. Who is Steve Bannon? Is he a snake-oil salesman or a true believer? Is he hopelessly cynical or cravenly opportunistic? What the hell is he? I still don’t know if I can answer that question.
Or all of the above?
All of the above is the most likely truthful answer. In the scene where Bannon talks about how furious he was to see a “Made in Vietnam” label on his daughter’s volleyball uniform…
…A perfectly crafted origin story I have a hard time buying.
You and me both, but I even had a harder time figuring out what the fuck he’s talking about. Was it that he’s against our former enemies becoming our trading partners? Was this some anti-globalist tirade? Or, as I felt, is he complaining that somehow, these foreign infidels, these non-Christian sorts, are making clothing that touches the most intimate parts of his children? How fucked up is this? I’ll answer my own question. It’s really, really fucked up.
Where does that leave us?
The global economy, not a bad thing. The United Nations and NATO, not bad things. I’m a fucking Jew. I came out of World War II. It still amazes me that I was born three years after the liberation of Auschwitz. We instituted the United Nations because these warring nation-states produced — and were going to produce — epic human disaster. And now we’ll Balkanize the world again? Build walls on our Southern border, fuck over immigrants and scare the bejesus out of anybody who actually lives in our country, whose status might be slightly in question? After all, America has never, ever benefited from the people who come to this country from overseas, even though, in fact, it includes everybody except for the Native Americans.
I think of people in the 1930s watching Europe go down the tubes, and while I don’t believe history does repeat itself exactly, I feel like I’m sitting here watching America go down the tubes. People don’t know what to think. Anytime anyone says [Trump is] going to get reelected, a little part of me dies.
On that happy note…
Well, I haven’t totally died yet.