Errol Morris in Conversation at the Harvard Film Archive

Errol Morris in Conversation at the Harvard Film Archive

Errol Morris' "American Dharma" feels like a missed opportunity rather than an engaging portrait of one of America's most polarizing figures

Errol Morris’ most recent film, American Dharma, which screened at the Harvard Film Archive on February 1st alongside a talk with the director, feels like a missed opportunity. In the film, Morris sets out to document the alt-right provocateur and former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon. The conversation following the film, facilitated by Ann Marie Lipinski, offered insight into the making of the film but at times turned into a platform for Morris to explain himself.

Morris came off during the talk as defensive. He spoke largely on the criticism the film received rather than the actual film itself. Morris suggests at one point that the “reactions to the film would be the real story.” Morris’ attitude during the talk was cheerful and upbeat, but it was his statements which came off as guarded. “I’ve never met a pariah I didn’t like… except myself,” Morris says while discussing his complicated relationship with Bannon. It’s statements like these that gave the impression that he was still sensitive about the reactions to the film. And perhaps he has good reason to be annoyed. The film is his first to not find a distributor. He points out that the film received some of the most negative critiques of his career. The conversation following the film felt largely like a defendant trying to justify his actions rather than strictly a thoughtful discussion of the film.

One aspect of the film which leaves a particular sense of wanting is Morris’ inability to challenge Bannon. In fact, Morris spent a considerable amount of his talk complaining about this specific piece of criticism. “I feel like I’m being punished for making this film,” Morris says at one point, referring to one reviewer who called the film a “toothless bromance.”

Morris’ talk does offer useful insight into his thinking while making the film. At one point during the talk, Morris explains that he wanted to explore the idea of destruction. “What if the world… was destroyed by one man? What if the world was destroyed by Anthony Weiner? There’s something I really like about that idea,” Morris says (somewhat sarcastically) while considering Bannon’s philosophy of destruction as a path to revolution. Morris intimated that Weiner’s seemingly unrelated actions in the run up to the 2016 election have nearly destroyed the world as we know it. Morris also spoke about the perversity of a figure like Bannon and talked about the need to confront repugnant ideologues such as Bannon rather than remaining indifferent.

Unfortunately, there was a disparity between Morris’ intentions and his execution.

The attitude in the theatre during the screening of the film underscored the failures of Morris’ documentary. Many in the audience laughed and scoffed at the incoherent statements made by Bannon. The portrait of Bannon presented did not challenge or confront the public persona he has crafted for himself. If anything, it only confirmed that persona. Rather than offering a “thoughtful analysis” of Bannon, as Morris’ description of the film promises, he buys into and indulges the self-mystification which Bannon has created.

Errol Morris is a director known for movies such as The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, films similarly focused on controversial political figures. Both The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, while certainly polarizing in their own right, were both met with critical acclaim. Unlike American Dharma, these films reward viewers by complicating, obscuring, and challenging the image of the figures at their respective centers. In addition to feature documentaries, Morris developed the docuseries Wormwood available on Netflix as well as a wide variety of advertisements.

The Harvard Film Archive frequently screens films alongside conversations with notable directors. Directors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor will be screening a variety of their films between February 3rd and February 10th, sitting down for conversations on select dates.