With “American Dharma,” Documentary Filmmaker Errol Morris Again Tosses Softballs to a Monster

When you realize how many génocidaires this guy has chatted up on celluloid it becomes evident that Morris is a pretty vacuous interviewer of those who need harder questions...

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Back in 2000, 60 Minutes profiled documentary film director Errol Morris that included an interview with arguably one of his biggest longtime advocates within American letters, the late Roger Ebert. I could go into the weeds for days critiquing Ebert’s genre of film criticism but for now I’ll merely cite this quote about Morris:

“After 20 years, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…in terms of his off-center, offbeat, very individual approach to human nature,” said Ebert, who ranks Morris alongside directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini.

Since that imprimatur was bestowed upon Morris, the director as well as the genre and the film industry he operates within have gone through seismic changes. Thanks to streaming video services, art house genre films (such as boutique documentaries, short animated films, and other outliers) don’t need to be entered into film festivals to become Oscar eligible. The proliferation of low-cost, high-quality video capture devices and consumer-grade editorial suites has democratized the film industry, so that any kid with an iPhone could hypothetically make a blockbuster. (Indeed, an entire social movement, #BlackLivesMatter, was born in part because of this technological proliferation.)

While that has happened, Errol Morris has interviewed several of the most genocidal maniacs that American so-called “civilization” has to offer. And what is really weird is just how much of a softball interrogator he is with these monsters!

Let’s back up for a minute and talk about the movie that was catching everyone’s eye when 60 Minutes ran its story. In Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), Morris profiles the extremely bizarre and nebbish Leuchter, who had the strange job designation of being one of the best execution chamber technicians in the United States. Until midway through the film, you see the character as a bit of an oddball, one of those ghastly marginal figures that maintain our distinctly racist and vile capital punishment system. He’s basically Woody Allen in a black hood.

Then shit gets really weird when our subject somehow gets tight with a crew of neo-Nazis who hired him to slap together a crank “report” whereupon a purported expert in the matter of gas chambers goes to Auschwitz. There he “proves” that, oops, the claims about gassing all those people in the Polish death camp are scientifically false, ergo the entire Nazi holocaust is an elaborate sham! At that moment, he goes from being a bit of an oddball to being a racist crank with a corner on the late 20th century white power publishing industry, joining such luminaries as David Irving.

Morris has since made a number of films featuring subjects far more noteworthy and altogether criminal than Fred Leuchter ever hoped to be. Morris should have held his later interview subjects to the same level of cinematic defenestration that he subjected Leuchter to. When Morris pilloried Mr. Death, he was punching down at a marginalized political clown. He was far more genteel when it came to Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.

First came The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), where Morris goes up close and personal with the man whose technical proficiency, bureaucratic efficiency, and moral vacuity transformed the American war on Vietnam into one of the greatest bloodbaths of the century.

By the time the movie came out, McNamara had been profiled by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest as a technocratic wunderkind bar none, one of the most astonishing products of the elite higher education establishment in America prior to December 7, 1941. The reporter and the bureaucrat became almost a dialectical pair over their lives, constantly intersecting in their ongoing and never-ending refrain “Why Vietnam?” When McNamara published a thinly disguised memoir-cum-mea culpa titled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Halberstam authored a savage review:

The agenda is McNamara’s, not the reader’s. That is not surprising: He has always been a control freak, and one of his singular skills, going back to his years at Ford [automobile company], was his ability to take command of a given bureaucratic agenda and to set the terms in which an issue was debated according to his strengths rather than those of potential opponents… He tells us that while writing this book, he asked himself, Why speak now? Why break my silence? Though there are many reasons, he says, “the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.” Indeed? What a charlatan. Has there ever been a more insulting sentence written by a high public official?

Errol Morris surely must have read Halberstam’s work or viewed his interview in the classic 1968 documentary In the Year of the Pig, one of the first pictures to break the cinematic law in Hollywood dictating all films had to endorse the American calamity in Southeast Asia. So what the hell was he doing giving Robert McNamara interview questions that make Larry King’s softballs look like Stephen Strausberg fastballs during a World Series? An entire subcontinent was pulverized and Morris can’t muster the spine to seriously press his subject about his role in this calamity?

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) is the first of a duology about the George W. Bush presidency and it is altogether underwhelming. Morris takes on the topic of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal where American GIs were photographed torturing Iraqi POWs.

What Morris never notes is that Abu Ghraib was not an isolated incident but merely one episode of an ongoing nightmare at home and abroad that we call the police-prison industrial complex. The carceral state dates back to the foundation of the European project in this hemisphere, when colonists were putting Indigenes and Africans into concentration camps and plantations. (For further elaboration on the connection between our Middle Eastern policies and their connection to Westward settler-colonial Expansion, check out this important 2014 article in Salon by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz).

The Unknown Known (2013), a long chat with Donald Rumsfeld that seems a pale comparison to the McNamara film, can be defined succinctly as the examination of a shit-eating grin for 103 minutes. What is so absolutely depressing in this film is Morris’s refusal to puncture the elaborate propaganda line, perpetrated by Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Rice, that was erected so to justify one of the greatest war crimes in this young century, the 2003 attack upon Iraq. Let’s be absolutely clear, the realities of why America attacked Iraq and why it was attacked on 9/11 are so fundamentally at odds with the bipartisan line of bullshit that we just marched through again last September in honor of the attack on the World Trade Center that the difference is akin to breathing oxygen and drowning.

Back in 2005, Adam Curtis produced a three-part picture for BBC (not exactly a radical outlet by any means) titled The Power of Nightmares. It argued that that Al Qaeda’s threat was wildly exaggerated by the national security state — as “a uniquely powerful network, unlike any previous terrorist danger and capable of overwhelming our society and our democracy,” as Curtis put it in an interview — in order to justify what has become an endless “war on terrorism.” Consider an interview from that picture:

JASON BURKE, AUTHOR, “AL QAEDA”: The idea—which is critical to the FBI’s prosecution—that bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no Al Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organized capability simply does not exist. [Emphasis added]

If Errol Morris is incapable of merely alluding to a matter so basic and fundamental to our grasp of what 9/11 really was, something is seriously amiss for those who continue to rank him beside Fellini and Hitchcock.

And thus we come now to American Dharma (2018), his up-close-and-personal convo with Steve Bannon the Hutt.

Let’s be clear what the stakes are here.

Read Our Prior Coverage of this Ongoing Story:

Bannon is a media genius. His campaign for the past 5 years now (or perhaps more if you account for his activity during the Obama years) has been the following:

  • Re-introduce into the public discourse a reinvigorated and revived formulation of scientific racism alongside a cadre of shock troop voters;
  • Establish support for the most noxious, violent war upon migrants and BIPOC people, acclamation for which is reflected in cheers to “BUILD THE WALL!” and “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US!”;
  • Execute a strategy whereby political moderates alongside loyal GOP voters will be able to build a majority in support of rolling back the last vestiges of the social safety net and regulatory agencies responsible for the protection of public health and safety;
  • Invites the worst kind of police state violence against the vulnerable;
  • Wrap this entire policy menu in a deceptive, cunning layer of economic populist rhetoric about the (actually truthful) criminality of Wall Street.

The overwhelming verdict of critics is that Morris flopped this one badly, failing to get remotely close to understanding his subject or even making the interviewee squirm when interrogated about his favorite cola brand. Instead, Bannon steamrolled over Morris and played the auteur as a sucker.

Here’s what the New Yorker had to say:

Though Morris challenges, and even insults, Bannon, he does so inconsistently. He fails to confront some of the most fundamental conceptions or misconceptions that Bannon delivers, and he contrives a portrayal of Bannon—with Bannon’s active complicity—that remains peculiarly ambiguous. As a result, far from dispelling the rank assumptions of Bannon’s doctrine, the movie buys into some of them, though clearly unintentionally. It isn’t Bannon’s presence in the film but Morris’s presentation of him that may leave a viewer feeling the need for a quick post-screening shower.

Peter Sobczynski — at RogerEbert.com — expressed similar disdain, saying, “A frustratingly hollow look at Bannon that is ultimately so benign in its portrayal of the man that it comes closer to an example of fan service than a full takedown.”

For Morris, Bannon should have been a slam-dunk. (And indeed Abby Martin previously laid out the perfect strategy for executing this when she produced a no-nonsense exposé on the Hutt at a fraction of Morris’s budget for her Empire Files series.) Instead, the picture, which has been hidden from the public for months after its first screening resulted in the kind of press that has traditionally destroyed careers, apparently grants Bannon a free venue in which he is allowed to carry on without challenge.

However, if we consider the director’s trajectory, perhaps it makes sense.

American liberalism has always failed to ask hard questions on a systemic level and quite often foists upon us sideshows that distract from the radicals asking the truly vital questions. Noam Chomsky has always said that the Watergate hearings were a great way to take attention away from the genuine scandal of the COINTEL-PRO revelations along with the secret bombings in Cambodia.

Art has the duty to provide a critical, skeptical voice that challenges the official narrative from the halls of power. That Morris seems to abnegate this in exchange for access to some of the most violent criminals of recent history is a tragedy written exclusively for Hollywood.

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