OK, there’s no easy way to say this, but watching an interview with Steve Bannon is not pleasant viewing. I know, shocking right? But the hope for Errol Morris’s film was that Bannon would get a skewering. Morris brought us the doc about Robert McNamara and the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Fog of War (a film which Bannon saw as inspirational for his own politics) and the brilliant The Unknown Known (which also made its debut in Venice in 2013) in which Donald Rumsfeld takes a pasting.
So does Morris lure Bannon into making any telling revelations or skewering himself? The answer is a resounding no. Bannon, often mocked by the liberal left as a shambolic bully who looks like a homeless drunk, comes across in this film as a highly intelligent, articulate and enormously capable man in pretty much any field he has worked in, most notably at Breitbart and as Donald Trump’s campaign manager and then presidential advisor. And he slips through the interviewer’s fingers with virtually every question. On occasion you see the mask drop a little, when talking about the FBI’s Russia investigation and his own subsequent dismissal/resignation. It’s hugely frustrating to see Bannon beginning to get riled, only for Morris not to go in for the kill.
Bannon, an erstwhile producer and filmmaker, is a film buff, and we look at his Weltanschauung through his take on some Hollywood classics: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Twelve O’Clock High. Does he identify with the characters? While he doesn’t openly admit that he sees himself as Gregory Peck’s character (the general who takes over an air crew and whips them into shape) or John Wayne’s in The Searchers (in which he plays a man seeking to rescue his niece from Comanches) he certainly admires them both for they get the job done, just as he did to such stunning effect when he took over the running of Breitbart and 45’s campaign. He whipped those slackers into shape and takes credit for both his ventures’ huge success. Yet his reading of these films is skewed to fit his own nasty beliefs.
Morris doesn’t hide his fear of Bannon and his ilk, which seems to please the interviewee immensely. But surely, however scared he was, Morris should have armed himself with some devastating questions to punch his opposition, if not downright floor him. The facts are there for all of us to read, so why not punch Bannon in the face with them? Bannon is terrifying, but if Morris is scared of getting into the ring with him, then don’t. What we are ultimately left with at the end of this overly cinematic interview with its reconstructions of settings from Bannon’s favourite films is a concern that we are feeding into Bannon’s hand: he’s been given a platform from which to spout his racist, anti-immigrant, divisive and frankly terrifying views and he comes out of this looking far stronger than his interviewer.
He talks to Morris as if he were a living camera, and at one point even becomes the interviewer himself. He talks about the ordinary man, but is far from being ordinary himself. When he finishes Morris quoting Paradise Lost at him (Morris: “Better to reign in Hell…”; Bannon “…than to serve in Heaven”), Morris is surprised he knows the quote, to which Bannon replies it’s one he uses all the time. No kidding. This is a troubling film that will strike fear into liberals and could very well foment violent support from the deplorables. Morris is right to be very, very afraid.