Errol Morris

“American Dharma” Bum: The New Errol Morris Film on Steve Bannon Gets a Cold Shoulder

Lock him in! Lock him in! The Quonset hut at the closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Photo by Rick Ouellette

I took the photographs in this post on January 2, 2017—after the election but before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The building in the picture above was one of the sites where Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris interviewed former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the subject of his new film called “American Dharma.” It was a sort of stage set up for Bannon, who first rose to prominence (or infamy, as many of us would have it) as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the alt-right, conspiracy-mongering website that is a favorite of the gullible current occupant of the White House.

A feature story in the arts section of the January 25th Boston Globe pointed out that the much-celebrated Morris has not found a distributor for the film, which has yet to see the light of day since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year. (There will be a screening at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center on Feb. 1st, just down the way from where Morris has his office). Part of the problem, might be in the blasé attitude that would let Morris indulge the highly controversial Bannon by having him blab away in the hut which resembles the one in his favorite World War II movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” For Morris, the WW2 film title that probably best sums up his problems with his new documentary is “A Bridge Too Far.”

When I posted this photo of abandoned housing in early January of 2017, a friend wondered if it were a preview of “post-Trump America.”

That’s because “American Dharma” can be seen as the third entry in a loose trilogy of Errol Morris films about contentious men who were Presidential advisers or Cabinet secretaries: and they can also be seen as offering diminishing returns on the director’s artistic investment. (Like most people, I haven’t seen “American Dharma” and this post is about the idea of doing it in the first place). The first, 2003’s “The Fog of War,” was about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ten years later, Morris came out with “The Unknown Known” about the longtime Republican operator Donald Rumsfeld, who first came to the national spotlight as chief of staff and defense secretary in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford and, of course, held that latter position under George W. Bush during the calamitous invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s.

“The Fog of War” was an exceptional, riveting film that deservedly won Morris an Oscar for best feature documentary, an award that many thought he should have received fifteen years earlier for “The Thin Blue Line.” Robert McNamara was born in 1916 and in an early scene he tells of his first memory, watching victorious American soldiers in a parade after the end of World War I. Morris makes the film so much more than a filmed profile of the man who had recently published a book that was a semi-mea culpa about his role in escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. It expands into an incisive examination into nearly a hundred years of an increasingly mechanized and brutal evolution of warfare (McNamara used his exceptional analytical skills to increase the efficiency of the Air Force’s firebombing of Japan near the end of WW2). At the end, McNamara is dodgy when Morris presses him as to why he didn’t voice his grave misgivings about Vietnam policy to Johnson but, aesthetically anyway, he is not let off the hook. As we hear audio of a phone interview of McNamara declining a last chance to come clean, we see the now elderly man driving around Washington in inclement weather, the hard rain of history beating down on his windshield.

“The Fog of War” was one of the first projects on which Morris use his patented “Interrotron” which (Wikipedia definition) “projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other.” And by extension, it makes it look like the interviewee is making eye contact with the viewer. But if one thinks this method will necessarily out the truth, that notion is quickly dispelled by the ceaselessly obstructionist style of Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” If you can get past his weasly double-talk (naturally, the film’s title is his own phrase) and the shit-eating grin, you might get something out of this film. But if you were someone outraged at Rumsfeld’s key role in the simplistic invasion plan in Iraq (“intellectually bankrupt” in the words of one general) that left the country in tatters and was based on a flimsy premise (the evidence-free accusation of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks), or were upset at the policy of U.S. troops standing by during the wholesale cultural destruction of the Iraq Museum looting (“stuff happens,” said Donny) or revulsed at his enabling of the heinous treatment of detainees, many of them innocent, which devolved into the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”), the film will leave you cold. Rumsfeld doesn’t feel exposed, he is allowed to go on and on in the current fashion of unaccountable yammering. To him and us, it’s just another day in the grinding machinery of the media-industrial complex.

America’s favorite slovenly sociopath? Steve Bannon in 2010.

Can you blame potential distributors for thinking that “American Dharma” is more of the same, esp. in view of Bannon’s “toxic reputation” (in the words of the Boston Globe)? Breitbart is now all but the communications arm of a mindset that is not out of step with the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. I have no problem with Bannon having his say, but for God’s sake wasn’t he a top White House advisor, feeding his xenophobic notions to the already unscrupulous, spiteful and easily-manipulated Trump? That’s say enough. Any further exposure is just fodder for the ever-spinning media merry-go-round. But if you need further confirmation of what you already know, “American Dharma” will likely see the light of day in some form or the other. In the Globe article, Morris says “I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie.” After Morris confirmed that Steve Bannon had seen the film and was asked what he thought, the director said “He likes it” and, according to reporter Mark Feeney, “barked out a laugh.” Forgive me if I’m not amused.

“Documentary 101” sampler, Part Six


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

gate heaven

The relocated deceased pets are given a final final-resting place at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park run by Calvin Harberts and his family. His younger son, Danny, ranks above older brother Phillip due to his length of service. Danny is a soft-spoken, hippie-ish young man who plays guitar and is the sole occupant of a hilltop bungalow overlooking the park. He seems indifferently fated to inherit the family pet cemetery as he sits in his room surrounded by stereo equipment and a TV, talking up vague notions of love and rock ’n’ roll superstardom. In one well-known scene, he takes his electric guitar and his powerful amplifier outside, serenading the passed-on pets and the whole empty valley with some choice hard-rock riffs. Danny seems as dispossessed as any protagonist from a Kafka novel. It’s startling to realize how far Errol Morris has expanded from his base subject. “Gates of Heaven” is a film permeated with a certain kind of human fragility, the kind that lies just behind the veneer of people’s stoical everyday lives.
(Gates of Heaven, 1978)



Russian director Dziga Vertov, along with fellow countryman Sergei Eisenstein, did much to pioneer the development of film montage and subjective editing. His was a cerebral brand of filmmaking, encompassing as it did patriotic movies for the young Soviet Union as well as the methodology of elevating the “life-facts” of photographic observation into a wider realm using stylistic flourishes. Vertov cleverly uses the actual making of the movie as its own framing device and along the way uses frenzied jump cuts, subliminal dissolves, overlapping images and split screens with the utmost confidence. Vertov’s stature was eventually undermined by Josef Stalin’s iron-fisted rule. Vertov may have been a committed Marxist but Stalin was an even more committed dictator and the director did not fare well when film projects started to fall under the auspices of rigid planning committees. His considerable talents and boundless creative drive were not so much crushed as gradually marginalized.
(Man With a Movie Camera, 1929)



The haunting “voice” of the theremin, the first electronic musical device, wafted above a long stretch of the twentieth century and found its apotheosis as a creepy backdrop for Cold War-era science fiction and suspense movies, as well as on the Beach Boys’ optimistic pop gem “Good Vibrations.” Even more intriguing than the instrument’s sound is the life story of its enigmatic inventor, Russian émigré Leon Theremin. At the height of his fame, Theremin vanished from his swank New York penthouse amid speculation that the KGB had kidnapped him. He reappeared several decades later, living in Moscow. Director Steven M. Martin unearthed exceptional archival footage of Theremin’s early years when he was the toast of New York, playing Carnegie Hall and hosting grand parties at his Fifty-Fourth Street compound with paramour, Clara Rockwell, also a theremin virtuoso.
(Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, 1995)

sherman march
Ross McElwee was born in 1947, into an old-line Southern family from Charlotte, North Carolina. He attended Brown University in Rhode Island, where he was exposed to the socially conscious films of Frederick Wiseman. Since doing his graduate work at MIT (under the tutelage of master documentarian Richard Leacock), he’s been based in the Boston area. Under different circumstances, his first full-length film may have been a fine, straightforward doc on the notorious march to the sea by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. But, as film history would have it, his girlfriend dumped him just as the funding for the project was secured. Beset by self-recrimination over the break-up, McElwee headed south with something more than the siege of Atlanta on his mind. McElwee gets sidetracked over large stretches of the old Confederacy, training his camera lens on seemingly every available woman on his own path to the sea. What came out of all this was a very droll landmark in the annals of the personal film-essay style, taking below the Mason-Dixon Line the kind of cerebral romantic comedy that Woody Allen used to be famous for. But McElwee is canny enough to keep his would-be womanizing from becoming self-indulgent, and his occasional insights about the Civil War and more modern forms of annihilation keeps the interest level high despite the film’s long running time.
(Sherman’s March, 1987)

“Documentary 101” Sampler, Part Three


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Below are five more snippets from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here.


During the Sixties, Berkeley, California became a boiling cauldron of activism and left-wing causes, the ingredients added one after the other (civil rights, free speech, Vietnam, feminism, the ecology) until it threatened to spill out of control. As to how this widespread culture of protest developed, director Mark Kitchell touches on the curious phenomenon that is the “oppression” of upper-middle-class white youth. It starts with parents who came of age in the Depression trying to give their children “everything” as they raised families in the expanding postwar economy. When this edged over into the materialism and conformity of the 1950s, it sowed the seeds of rebellion. Kitchell infers that these kids could only break through the status quo if they considered themselves not to be privileged in the conventional sense, but instead to have been raised in spiritual and intellectual poverty.
(Berkeley in the Sixties, 1990)



Michael Moore financed much of the film’s $160,000 budget himself and centered it on his own fumbling attempts to meet GM chairman Roger Smith and convince him to personally meet a few of the Flint area’s 30,000 newly unemployed… Toward the end of the film the camera is behind Moore’s shoulder as he finally tracks down Roger Smith at the GM Christmas party. The chairman has just given a speech where he somehow saw it fitting to quote Dickens’s famous monologue from “A Christmas Carol” (“I always thought of Christmas as a good time . . .”). Many viewers by this time would likely see Scrooge’s callous comments about the “surplus population” as the more fitting passage. At least Moore gets to speak to Smith amid a milling crowd; he’s just come from Flint “where we filmed a family [of a former GM worker] being evicted from their home on the day before Christmas Eve. Would you be willing to come with us to see?”
(Roger & Me, 1989)


ereol morris

With “The Thin Blue Line”, director Errol Morris would ultimately achieve what most documentaries can only strive for: affecting tangible change on the issue raised by the film. The publicity surrounding the film in 1988 helped to overturn the murder conviction of former death row inmate Randall Adams, who was released from prison the following year. Originally sentenced to be executed in the 1976 killing of a Dallas, Texas, police officer, the dubious case against Adams had already caused a reduction to life in prison when Morris caught wind of the case while researching in the Lone Star State for a possible documentary on a related subject. Morris helps to correct a travesty of justice without ever coming within a mile of a soapbox, building a case against the legal system despite his seeming impartiality. Even more impressive is that he does this while having the stylistic daring to hone a detail-obsessed, overtly cinematic form of nonfiction filmmaking that would greatly influence the genre through the 1990s and beyond.
(The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris pictured in 1988)


american dream

Set against an economic paradigm shift and the anti-union bias of the Reagan presidency, director Barbara Kopple investigates the nationally publicized 1985 strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota. She contrasts an old company film touting founder Jay Hormel’s enlightened employee-friendly policies with the compulsive bottom-line mentality of modern management and shareholders. The union splits into two in over strategic differences, sometimes ripping apart families in the process. The protracted strike leaves Koppel with plenty of time to portray a beleaguered American working class, with millions hung out to dry as the once-proud industrial sector becomes inexorably replaced with an anemic retail and service sector economy.
(American Dream, 1990)


paradise lost

Modern-day America comes off looking more like a spruced-up version of the Dark Ages when three teenagers in Arkansas are arrested for the murder of three young boys and the only “evidence” against them seems to be that they dress in black, listen to heavy metal music, and have a high school-level interest in the black arts. This literal witch hunt forms the basic premise of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s masterful but distressing documentary. The fate of the accused seems as preordained as that of the Negro defendant in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in an earlier film treatment of the American South.
(Paradise Lost:The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,1996)