VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - When documentary filmmaker Errol Morris asks Steve Bannon if he ever feels like Lucifer, the fallen angel who decided it’s “better to reign in Hell”, the former Donald Trump aide is delighted and finishes the quote from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” himself: “than serve in Heaven!”
“American Dharma”, Morris’s extended interview with the alt-right cheerleader, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, with some critics saying it gave Bannon, who prides himself on his skill in manipulating the media, an easy ride.
No fan of Trump, whom he called a “weasel”, Morris said he wanted to explore “what the hell is going on” in America and beyond with the rise of populist ultra-nationalism.
Morris, 70, has made interview-based films on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known”, and Robert McNamara, the U.S. defence secretary during the Vietnam War, called “The Fog of War”, which won him an Oscar in 2003, and which Bannon himself loved.
“Dharma” is a Buddhist concept that Bannon says is his driving force and defines as “the combination of duty, fate, and destiny”.
Variety critic Owen Gleiberman said Bannon comes over in “American Dharma” as “an avuncular and cultivated presence”, expounding on his favourite movies and chuckling about the Satan comparison.
“It’s hard to escape the feeling that Errol Morris got played,” Gleiberman said, describing the interview style in the movie as “softball”.
New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick, who had planned to interview Bannon at a live event, cancelled it this week after filmmakers and his own staff complained it would give a platform to a man they say helped legitimise violent white nationalists.
Director Judd Apatow said he would boycott the New Yorker Festival if the interview went ahead, tweeting: “I will not take part in an event that normalizes hate.”
But, in Venice, Morris bristled when reporters suggested he had given Bannon an easy ride.
“If you are telling me that (the rise of populist nationalism) is so deeply pernicious and destructive we shouldn’t talk about it all – I say that’s nonsense talk, you’re wrong. I think it’s extraordinarily important that we all talk about it and try to come to a deeper understanding of it.
“I think remaining silent isn’t good, I’ll go even further – I’ll say it’s bad. Just simply affording him an opportunity for more public exposure – not good. Trying to explore the nature of what he calls ‘national populism’, what it means, what it means to the world, what it means for my country, I think is absolutely essential.”
Bannon did not attend the news conference but, according to Variety, was in Venice and slipped into the premiere via a back entrance as security had advised him to avoid the red carpet. He did not speak to reporters.
“American Dharma” screened out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival which concludes on Sept 8.
Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Gareth Jones