The January 6 assault on the Capitol by insurrectionists left many Americans shocked, ashamed, and glued to their TV sets. Errol Morris was one of them. For years, the filmmaker has documented the tragic and dangerous actions of powerful men and the lies they tell the world, most prominently in his Oscar-winning portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. But the violent outbreak on Wednesday echoed a more-recent subject of Morris scrutiny: Steve Bannon.
“He is one of the evil geniuses behind it all,” Morris said in a phone call from his office on January 7. He’s got the proof on film with his 2019 documentary “American Dharma,” which pitted the director against Bannon, Trump’s notorious campaign director-turned-senior advisor, the alt-right hero and former Breitbart News publisher who exploited raging and disenfranchised white conspiracy theorists and cemented the seditious rage at the core of Trump’s base.
Bannon relishes his role. On January 5, anticipating the convening of Congress to formalize the Electoral College results, Bannon offered up his prediction about how the day would go. “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” he said on his podcast, “War Room: Pandemic.” (YouTube removed the podcast channel from its site on January 8, after guest Rudy Giuliani blamed Democrats for the uprising.) Bannon also referred to the obsession over Vice President Mike Pence’s role in the congressional ritual in eerie terms that reflected his admiration for Morris’ work. “It’s the fog of war,” Bannon said.
When “American Dharma” hit the festival circuit, Morris faced constant backlash and accusations that Morris was empowering Bannon months after he lost his influential White House position. Yet anyone who saw “American Dharma” must have thought about its closing moments this week. As he asks Bannon about the motives behind fomenting populist rage, Morris ends his unnerving one-on-one with the filmmaker by setting the set, located in an airplane hanger, on fire. “You want to burn it all down,” Morris says, as Bannon wanders off in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape.
Looking back on that scene, Morris was hesitant to gloat. “Do I want to call myself prescient? I don’t know,” he said. But he was still smarting from audiences that resisted “American Dharma,” both at festivals and during its theatrical run.
“It’s like people think America was free from his ideals because he was pushed out of the White House,” Morris said. “That’s a mistake. The ideology continued unabated, and if anything it exacerbated, the desire to destroy, hurt, destabilize.”
In the first year of Trump’s administration, Bannon garnered plenty of attention for many of the xenophobic policies and public remarks that epitomized Trump’s worst tendencies and fired up his base. From the Muslim ban to his appalling comments about guilt on “both sides” of the race riots in Charlottesville, they all have Bannon’s fingerprints. The way Morris sees it, Trump’s presidential campaign allowed Bannon to consolidate the nationalist impulses he galvanized online by turning them into a movement.
“He had this desire to exploit the hatred of the ‘other,’” Morris said. “They kept searching around for a figurehead, and then lo and behold, Trump appears. They found a guy — a really, really stupid guy — who could be bent to their way of thinking, or already thought that way and was eager to please. “
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Part of the ingenuity in “American Dharma” revolves around Bannon’s love of movies, and the way he talks about his life work in their context. Morris interviewed Trump about that as well, years ago, for an unfinished project that saw the real estate mogul musing on his love for “Citizen Kane.” These days, however, Morris said he had no interest in speaking to the outgoing president — even if the opportunity opened up years down the line, as it did with McNamara and “The Unknown Known” subject Donald Rumsfeld.
“I think he’s crazy,” Morris said of Trump. “Did I know from the minute that this guy was elected that this was a bad scene for America? Yes, of course. He was lying from day one and before that. People were in denial about it.”
Morris’ work tends to have a cosmic dimensio, whether he’s grappling with the laws of physics (“A Brief History of Time”), the elusive justice system (“The Thin Blue Line”), or Holocaust denial (“Mr. Death”). That has allowed him particular foresight when it comes to the gullibility of the masses, and the danger that comes when it’s used for personal gain.
“One of the saddest things about humans is that we’re a credulous lot,” Morris said. “All you have to do is look at the last week to understand what a credulous lot we really are. Rationality? Poof, gone. The ability to convince yourself of anything? For whatever reason? Easy! It was all there, with or without Bannon.”
Morris has no interest in returning to Bannon. “He was important to me because he was at the heart of a movement. He represented a deep problem in America.” Even so, Morris struggled me to make sense out of the Capitol assault. “What are all these people thinking?” he said. “Do you really want another four years of this man? You’re just objecting to the election because you love democracy so much that you want its rules to be adhered to? What’s the whole irrational idea here? You want more of this? It was so great? You can’t get enough?”
Morris hesitated to say whether he would circle back on those questions for a future project. He’s currently trying to set up another narrative-documentary hybrid on par with his Netflix miniseries “Wormwood,” but didn’t rule out future investigations into the nation’s troubled soul.
“I think it’s important to address this stuff,” he said. “Understanding evil is one of the fundamental chores for all of us. I’d like to do something about it because I think that’s important to hold these people accountable — and, in the process, to understand them.”
“American Dharma” is available on VOD.