NEW YORK — Few documentary filmmakers have had as profound an impact on the medium as Errol Morris.
After some early, low-budget projects on oddball subjects (a pet cemetery, the townsfolk of a small Florida village) the Long Island-born Jewish-American director released “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988, which effectively got a wrongfully imprisoned man off of death row.
It wasn’t just rabble-rousing righteousness that accomplished this, though. Morris directed a good, juicy movie.
Using highly cinematic reenactments of the sort that made “proper” documentarians queasy (and a hypnotic, original score by Phillip Glass), Morris was abundantly clear that the first thing filmmakers (and audiences) need to accept is that there is no such thing as a perfect truth.
As his career continued, he devised a weirdo contraption called “The Interrotron,” in which interview subjects could look directly at a screen and see the person questioning them, but also get filmed in close-up. It makes for energetic and sometimes unsettling viewing. (It involves mirrors; you can rent one if you like.) He incorporated this technology to make a series of films about Important, Problematic Men.
The first was “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.,” about a strange individual who had a career devising “humane” execution techniques and then became a leader in the Holocaust denial movement. Then was “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” a deep-dive with the former American secretary of defense. (A follow-up, “The Known Unknown” with Donald Rumsfeld was equally fascinating and disturbing.)
2003’s “Fog of War” won Morris the Oscar, but also, unbeknownst to him, begat his newest project, “American Dharma,” which debuted this week in New York.
When “Fog of War” showed at the Telluride Film Festival, a 50-year-old investment banker who dabbled in a hands-off kind of way in movies was thunderstruck. That man was Stephen K. Bannon, eventual chief executive of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, for a time anyway, among his top advisors.
Morris’s 2003 film, which most would consider traditionally liberal, inspired Bannon to make political documentaries with a difficult-to-pin-down philosophy other than the catch-all term “populist.” They were not successful, but it hooked him up with an upstart internet muckraker by the name of Andrew Breitbart, and, if you want to continue to connect the dots, this is the path that brought Donald Trump to sit in the Oval Office today.
Okay, that’s a big leap — but Bannon’s testimony in the weirdly agreeable new “American Dharma” lays out a pretty good case. What’s terrifying — at least to me — is how Morris’s style of filmmaking turns the 2016 election into something of an electrifying caper film.
As much of Morris’s career can attest, we bring our personal biases with us everywhere. There’s no point in hiding that I am no fan of Mr. Trump, and I am especially no fan of Mr. Bannon, whose work at Breitbart.com roiled up the festering sludge of the internet’s worst tendencies with bad faith arguments and outright lies.
I don’t know if Bannon himself is a racist and anti-Semite, but he surely has no problem achieving his goals by chumming such vulgar waters.
Before the film (which played at the New York Film Festival, after debuting at the Venice and Toronto festivals) I stood with some colleagues on one of Lincoln Center’s elevated plazas. Were I a smoker, I would have had a cigarette in my hand. “I hope this movie just shows he’s a complete putz,” I said.
Naturally, Morris isn’t letting any of us off that easy: Stephen K. Bannon, I regret to inform you, is a substantially clever and crafty man. The question remains if he is just flying by instinct or if he is well-aware of what he’s doing. (Either way, the outcome isn’t good.)
He certainly has delusions of grandeur. A leitmotif in “American Dharma” is his love for the classic tough guy war film “12 O’Clock High,” and how Bannon identifies with Gregory Peck’s “get it done by any means necessary” philosophy. (In the film, Peck was determined to defeat the Nazis. In 2016, Bannon was determined to get a millionaire game show host elected President.)
His goal, so he tells us, is some sort of vague iconoclasm. He hates “the system,” and he fights for the little guy. He speaks of witnessing the sorrow of a former coach whose son was killed in Vietnam, which he feels was a pointless war.
After some early successes with Andrew Breitbart (exposing Anthony Weiner’s misdirected tweet was from their shop) he recognizes that the crude, outsider rhetoric belching out of Donald Trump’s mouth is dovetailing with the angry voices found in the comments section of the articles he’s publishing. Bannon decides to ride the train.
Film scholars frequently point to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder” as an example of how an audience has split allegiances. We spend our time with Ray Milland’s character as he schemes to kill Grace Kelly, and while we know this is “wrong” (at least I hope we all do) it is undeniable that it is exciting to watch his master plan come together.
As Bannon describes to Morris how he misdirected the media, amplified Trump’s braggadocio and, in one outrageous instant, made sure TV cameras saw Hillary Clinton in the same shot as women who accused her husband of sexual predation, there is a part of your brain that is at least impressed that these machinations work out as intended.
Morris is not, however, entirely passive, like when Bannon claims that Trump wrote his own speeches. (“Oh, come onnnnnn!” Morris snorts.) Best is when Bannon turns the tables on him, and Morris confesses that his son is still annoyed he didn’t back Bernie Sanders, and that he pushed for Clinton thinking that she was the smarter bet. “I was afraid of you guys,” he says, in an honest and oddly tender moment.
Bannon was eventually dismissed from Trump’s White House after the events in Charlottesville, when the comments section of Breitbart — and worse — sprang to life at a “Unite the Right” rally, and counter-protestor Heather Heyer was murdered. We see the clip of white nationalists shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
Bannon shrugs off the whole racism thing as a tiny element, and implies that somebody had to take the fall.
The question remains, how does he get back on top? An argument can be made that Morris has been duped, and the attention of a documentary film from a major director is merely adding oxygen to his phoenix’s fire.
Personally, I don’t think so, for the same reason that I don’t think inflammatory radio talk show host Alex Jones, another maniac (probably) acting in bad faith, should be banned from YouTube. I think it is far better to have a good, lengthy examination of these people, to try and understand the roots of their thinking. One can’t just hope the racist and anti-Semitic elements that drive so much internet rage are just going to go away.
If anything, we should be thanking Errol Morris, who sat across from Stephen Bannon for days on end listening to his stories — so we didn’t have to.
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