It’s hard to know how to write this essay without a) being self-serving, and b) appearing to be self-serving. Neither seems entirely desirable. Maybe I should stop here. Why take the risk? What’s in it for me? Promoting my movie, which is now, finally, about to be released, and which I would like people to see?
Please, see my movie. So, now it’s all out in the open.
But how did I get to this point, where I’m pleading with my readership? Sometime in January 2018, I had this crazy idea that instead of doing nothing, I should weigh in on the current, miserable situation in America.
A movie about Stephen K. Bannon, who is credited by many with having put Donald Trump in the White House, seemed a way to do so. Bannon’s politics are not really my cup of tea. But I’ve never met a pariah I didn’t like. And I wanted to understand: How in hell did this happen?
The premiere of my film American Dharma at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018 was marred by an announcement less than two days earlier that David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, was rescinding his invitation to Bannon to appear onstage at the New Yorker Festival. Under pressure from staff and guests, a leading American intellectual had just de-platformed Bannon, effectively signaling that even to talk to him was taboo.
De-Platforming: All the Rage
Remnick wasn’t acting in a vacuum; de-platforming was all the rage in that moment. Reviewers took a shine to the idea, too. American Dharma was called a “bromance.” One reviewer found it so disgusting he felt the need for a shower afterward (perhaps he hadn’t been bathing regularly). Many, many people suggested that the film shouldn’t have been made. And no one would distribute it.
I was told by so many people that it was too dangerous to look at—too sympathetic to Bannon. Now, more recently, I’ve been told that the movie is irrelevant, that Bannon is no longer a central figure. But guess what? I open The New York Times this week and see that Bannon has begun broadcasting a pro-Trump, anti-impeachment radio show. We may wish him to have gone away, but he certainly has not.
When I talk to somebody, I’m always looking for a new way in. For those of you who love the traditional question-and-answer format—particularly the adversarial interview with the so-called difficult questions—a different way in may be unappealing. Even inadmissible.
But what are these difficult questions? The question that turns the subject/target into a quivering mass of jelly? Excuse me, that’s not how it works. Most adversarial interviews exist not to procure information but merely to showcase the toughness of the interviewer. If the goal is to show how tough you are, then the difficult question works wonders. But if the goal is to learn something new or something unexpected or something different, it’s often a disaster. Most of the new information that I’ve elicited in interviews has not come from questions, but out of a desire to listen. It’s as simple as that.
In 2008 the Ron Howard movie Frost/Nixon dramatized a famous series of interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, the disgraced president of the United States—considered to be prime examples of “the interview as gladiatorial contest.”
Most adversarial interviews exist not to procure information but merely to showcase the toughness of the interviewer.
Near the close of the interviews, broadcast in 1977, Frost tells Nixon what Nixon needs to say to the American people, and Nixon tries to acquiesce without admitting to much of anything. Nixon is talking about how he impeached himself out of consideration for the country, not because he thought himself culpable:
NIXON: I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense. Now, the House has ruled overwhelmingly that I did; of course, that was only an indictment and would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won. I might have lost. But, even if I’d won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled and for six months the country couldn’t afford having the president in the dock in the United States Senate, and there can never be an impeachment in the future in this country without a president voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.
FROST: How do you mean, “I have impeached myself”?
NIXON: By resigning. That was a voluntary impeachment. And, now what does that mean in terms of whether I, ah, you’re wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up? No.
But in an adversarial interview, we want something more—an admission of wrongdoing. His mealymouthed denial didn’t satisfy the filmmakers (or the playwright whose work they adapted). Instead, they created what today we would call fake news. Elizabeth Drew describes it in an article for the Huffington Post: “The climactic moment of the movie (as in the play) has Nixon confessing to having participated in the cover-up of the famous break-in of the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, in June, 1972 by operatives hired by White House aides. But this ‘confession’ is produced through a blatant distortion of what Nixon actually said in the interviews.” It’s the equivalent of changing “I’m not saying that I beat my wife” to “I beat my wife.”
Drama vs. Journalism
What would you call that? Misquotation? Elision? Fake news? In a gladiatorial contest, we need to see the gladiator deliver the kill shot, the coup de grâce. Or, if we’re Torquemada and employed by the Inquisition, we want to see the subject’s feet held to the fire, literally. The filmmakers wanted to obey the exigencies of drama rather than journalism. O.K., O.K., there is a tension between the two, but should that tension allow you to efface the entire content of what transpired?
People who saw my film with Steve Bannon desperately wanted a confrontation. And even though there were several, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to say, “I think you’re crazy,” or to draw a comparison between him and Satan. I’m not sure what people wanted—perhaps for me to hit him with a cinder block, or maybe even kill him.
In the documentary film by Kazuo Hara The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Mr. Okuzaki, the unhinged protagonist, makes crazy attempts to get an admission of responsibility and an apology for the deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. The men were part of a starving garrison stationed in New Guinea at the end of World War II; they were mysteriously killed and may have even been eaten by their officers. At a meeting years later with one of the officers responsible for their deaths, Mr. Okuzaki gets up and starts strangling the interviewee. It’s an interviewer’s dream, but I’m not sure it accomplishes any reasonable objective.
What About Tergiversation?
Can’t the difficult question be ignored or circumvented? What about feigned ignorance, tergiversation, and out-and-out lying? I’ve watched some 20 or more Bannon interviews—with Charlie Rose; the editor in chief of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes; Bill Maher; the debate at the Oxford Union … Those who have done the best, or, at least, the most interesting ones, have been Michael Lewis, who watched the State of the Union with Bannon and then reported on it for Bloomberg (strictly speaking, not an interview). Or Michael Wolff, for his book Fire and Fury—again, not an interview. Or Joshua Green, author of a full-length biography. (And, by the way, Joshua Green loved American Dharma and called it “the best glimpse of the true Bannon that anyone is going to see.”) The greatest Nazi interrogator, Hanns Scharff, was apparently Mr. Nice Guy and, after the war, wound up making mosaics for Disney World.
The issue isn’t asking difficult questions. It’s creating a situation where people want to talk to you and may tell you things you do not know. You may not even know enough to ask the difficult questions. My favorite example of this is one of the lines that broke the Thin Blue Line case: in my interview with the “eyewitness” who placed Randall Dale Adams, the man ultimately sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer, in the driver’s seat of the vehicle.
The “eyewitness” all but saw him shoot the cop. But she told me inadvertently that she had failed to pick out the defendant at a police lineup and that she knew this because the policeman sitting next to her told her she had picked out the wrong person and then pointed out the “right person”: “So that I would never make that mistake again.”
Case in point: sometimes the difficult question is no question at all.
Take McNamara’s comment in The Fog of War about the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.... But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” This statement of McNamara’s did not come in response to a difficult question. There was no difficult question. He just offered this to me because he liked talking to me. Period.
With Rumsfeld, too, I was criticized for not asking difficult questions in The Unknown Known—again under the assumption that difficult questions will produce thoughtful, thought-provoking answers, whereas the reality is that they more often produce rote or at least well-rehearsed evasions.
Difficult questions may not be the last refuge of scoundrels, but they do provide safe harbor for them. To me, the most telling moments in my Rumsfeld film are moments when I can’t even tell whether the reply is an evasion or a vapid, ingenuous answer. For example, Rumsfeld and I were talking about a photograph of him in the Oval Office with Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, and William Simon. Saigon is falling; the American Embassy is being hastily evacuated—embassy personnel, journalists, and Marines clambering onto the helicopters on the roof of the embassy. It’s one of the worst debacles in American history. I ask Rumsfeld: “Do you think there’s a lesson to be taken from this?” Rumsfeld replies: “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.”
Sometimes the difficult question is no question at all.
I wanted to provide a new way of looking at Bannon. And I didn’t want the same rehearsed answers to expected questions. (Wasn’t it Einstein who provided the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?) So I built him the movie set of his dreams—the Quonset hut from his favorite film, Twelve O’Clock High—and sat him down to discuss his favorite movies, or maybe I should say his favorite narratives. Set decorators often have a pile of old books that they use as part of the décor. One of those books was Milton’s Paradise Lost. In between takes I started re-reading it. I went home and talked to my wife, Julia, and she said that Bannon reminded her of Milton’s Lucifer. The following day I brought this to Bannon’s attention:
MORRIS: I was reading about Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I have to say that Lucifer for me had certain Bannonesque qualities.
BANNON: He’s the interesting character in Paradise Lost.
MORRIS: Rather reign in Hell—
BANNON: —than serve in Heaven. Love that line. I use it all the time.
MORRIS: You do?
BANNON: Oh yeah, all the time. There’s a lot of truth to that.
So what should you do? Ah, we’ve come full circle. Should you try to find out something new, something you don’t know, or should you pander to your audience’s expectations? You tell me.
I was addressing a group of journalists, and one woman said that she liked American Dharma, but, “you know, that’s not the right way to interview Steve Bannon.” Well, I dunno. There is no correct way to interview anybody. No correct way to investigate anything. You try to do the best you can.
Errol Morris is a filmmaker and an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. American Dharma opens on November 1