New York 2018

Probing the Origins of Trumpism

The Daily — Oct 1, 2018
Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (2018)

Errol Morris’s new ninety-eight-minute documentary, American Dharma, draws on sixteen hours of interviews that the director has conducted with former investment banker, former filmmaker and producer, former Breitbart News executive chairman, former White House Chief Strategist, and current right-wing gadfly Steve Bannon. The film premiered in Venice in the immediate wake of a brouhaha that saw the cancellation of Bannon’s appearance as a headliner at this coming weekend’s New Yorker Festival. Other guests invited to the event billed as a “festival of ideas,” such as Jim Carrey, John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow, had threatened to withdraw unless Bannon was pulled from the bill. New Yorker editor David Remnick relented but not without a defense of the decision to invite Bannon in the first place.

The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism,” wrote Remnick in a formal statement, and this is, of course, also the primary objection to American Dharma raised at press conferences in Venice and Toronto and in several reviews. “But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him,” Remnick continued. “The point of an interview, a rigorous interview, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.” So does Morris put sufficient pressure on Bannon’s ideas to justify his feature-length interview?

The pressure comes first and foremost in the form of the presence of Morris himself as interrogator. Morris can’t get Bannon to budge from his positions or his support for the man who fired him, Donald Trump, but he does manage to stump him when he asks, as Doug Dibbern points out in the Notebook, “why, if Bannon imagines himself as an advocate for the working class, he supports a candidate who will cut taxes for the ultra-wealthy and eviscerate environmental protections.” Morris “holds a shot of Bannon’s blank, disconcerted expression for as long as he can, so that, I thought, you could almost see his eyes twitch, the visible sign of a decent but microscopic soul searching for an escape route from its self-constructed mental limits.”

There’s also an on-screen flurry of headlines and snippets from social media to combat Bannon’s arguments and more than a little discussion of some of Bannon’s favorite movies: Twelve O’Clock High, Chimes at Midnight, The Bridge on the River Kwai, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. Bannon readily identifies with John Wayne in John Ford’s classic western, and that truly rattles Dibbern: “That Bannon doesn’t seem to understand or to mind the incontrovertible fact that Wayne is the villain—which even Wayne himself was able to see—is chilling.”

So Morris racks up a few points, but for many critics, not enough to score a knockout. “It’s clear enough that the director doesn’t buy into Bannon’s overarching narrative of Trump as a revolutionary warrior giving power back to the disenfranchised workers of America,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims, “but the film is still too dominated by Bannon’s monologuing for the contrasts to really land.” At Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov’s frustration with the film borders on anger: “We live in profoundly, dangerously stupid times; Morris’s film does nothing to clarify them or combat their architects.”

Slate’s Sam Adams is willing to cut Morris a little slack, though: “It would be lovely to think there’s a documentary that could expose Trumpism as a fraud, that could pull the scales from his most devout supporters’ eyes and show them how he’s played them for suckers, but you can’t fault Morris for falling short of an impossible goal.” David Bordwell argues that Morris may have nonetheless “revealed the real puppeteer behind Trump’s coup d’état: the petty overachiever swollen with dreams of grandeur drawn from movies.”

Another film in “an infinite parade of documentaries about how the hell we got here,” as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich puts it, is Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, a portrait of the man who spent two decades running Fox News, inarguably Trump’s primary source of news and opinion. And, according to Ehrlich, the film is “a clean and straightforward account of how a hemophiliac from small-town Ohio grew up to become the most powerful man in media, effectively destroy the country that he claimed to love, and harass a whole lot of women along the way.” In the same vein, the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Dalton calls Divide and Conquer “a competent but conventional affair, highly watchable but low on fresh angles or bombshell revelations.” At the Film Stage, Daniel Schindel comes down on the doc more harshly, arguing that most of it can be “slotted firmly into Wikipediaism” with “interviewees applying surface-level psychological interpretations of Ailes’s worldview and actions.”

Ailes’s career took off when he went to work for Richard Nixon as a media consultant, and he’d go on to perform similar duties for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and of course, Donald Trump. In his 2008 book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein argues that Nixon, with the help of men like Ailes, exploited the social unrest of the late 1960s and early ’70s to create the cultural divide that’s since widened into the chasm we see today. “In the climate of antagonism that he fostered, Nixon grew increasingly conspiratorial,” wrote Thomas J. Sugrue, reviewing Nixonland for the Nation. “Rather than resting content with the wizardry of his image-makers, he pioneered especially devious tactics to burnish his image and undermine his critics.”

You know where this is heading. “Its subtitle a Kubrickian nod to powers-that-be madness run amok, Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President, is a four-hour, twenty-minute non-fiction history lesson about the scandal that took down our thirty-seventh commander-in-chief,” writes Nick Schager for the Daily Beast. “Sharp, comprehensive and disinterested in traveling down speculative rabbit holes, it’s an exhaustive timeline of historic incidents that plays as both a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power, and a portrait of how democracy only survives serious threats when men and women put the state before themselves.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy notes that throughout the doc, director Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight, Inside Job) remains “cool, fastidious, factual, and as dedicated to making a strong case as a good lawyer would be. Here, of course, there’s no persuading to be done—Richard Nixon hoisted himself on his own petard.”

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