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Documentary Now: Michael Moore and Errol Morris Try to Figure Out How We Got Here

The Toronto International Film Festival got political with new films from legendary directors on big topics—Steve Bannon, Trump, the Resistance. But a lesser-known director may have stolen the show.

Because I’m officially washed, I didn’t make it out to the midnight premiere of Halloween at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, which apparently featured The Shape, in person, walking through the theater after the lights went down. Somewhere, William Castle was smiling.

Notwithstanding 59-year-old Jamie Lee “Happy Halloween, Motherfuckers!” Curtis, midnight screenings are for the kids. The rest of us prefer to get freaked out in broad daylight. Introducing his new documentary American Dharma, Errol Morris got spooky: “This,” he said, “is a horror movie.”

I’d agree that American Dharma is unnerving, both for the reasons that its creator intended and also for reasons that extend beyond his intentions. The resonances between Morris’s Dharma—which profiles Steve Bannon—and Morris’s 2004 Oscar winner, The Fog of War—a one-on-one with the Vietnam War’s chief architect, Robert McNamara—are obvious. Both focus on men whose fingerprints got smeared all over the corridors of presidential power. But there’s an even more direct connection: At one point, Bannon tells Morris that his ascent to a wholly unpredictable and, in its way, unparalleled cultural influence is, in a way, the director’s fault. It was after watching Morris present The Fog of War at the Telluride Film Festival that the would-be auteur decided he wanted to reach a wider audience.

Essentially a 100-minute interview between Morris and Bannon, American Dharma can’t help but reflect the recent debate over the latter’s invitation—and subsequent and very public expulsion—from The New Yorker’s festival; the question of whether an alt-right ideologue deserves to be heard—even if the idea is to turn his platform into a gallows—seemed to inspire mostly nos from the Twittersphere. The romantic notion that some brilliant, gallant, liberal interviewer—like, say, David Remnick—might expose Bannon’s views for the appalling, racist dog whistles they are doesn’t work because it’s not like he’s shy about his beliefs. All you’re doing is giving him one more microphone.

I kept thinking about this dilemma during American Dharma, which unfortunately serves mostly to showcase Bannon’s rhetorical adeptness when confronted with questions and criticisms about his agenda. I guess give Morris credit for not editing the film to undermine the coherence of Bannon’s answers (as he arguably did in films like Mr. Death and The Thin Blue Line). If anything, Morris almost seems to be sucking up to his subject, admiringly citing Paradise Lost’s Lucifer as a literary analog and proposing that there is a “good Bannon” and a “bad Bannon.” It’s shades of “very fine people on both sides.”

I’m not saying that Morris is a Bannon fan, of course, or even that Bannon is persuasive in American Dharma: If you’ve heard one apocalyptic rationale for America-first nationalism as the last line of defense against globalism, you’ve heard ’em all. But Bannon’s confidence in recounting exactly how he helped to almost instantly build a fringe blog like Breitbart into a legitimate media empire and then get Donald Trump elected president, both despite and because of a firestorm of negative media coverage, doesn’t elicit much resistance from Morris. The moment when Bannon bullies the director for voting for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries is devastating, with Morris admitting he cast his ballot out of fear—a stammering answer that makes him seem like his own kind of reactionary.

Morris is not deliberately trying to give Bannon the upper hand in American Dharma, and there are touches inserted to reassert the director’s own artistic control: slow-motion shots of Bannon walking through empty landscapes to give him the look of a Frankenstein monster; re-creations of movie sets and props from the old Hollywood films that inspired his worldview; shots of hot-orange flames engulfing buildings. The sum total of these flourishes—which Bannon, a former self-described “avant-garde” filmmaker, smirkingly calls “nice effects”—is to amp up a sense of disorientation and dread that, while justified, doesn’t diminish Bannon’s own poise or precision. As a confrontation with a figure who defiantly owns his own monstrousness and believes that his role in Trump’s rise—and whatever comes next—is a manifestation of some larger destiny, American Dharma is frightening. As an example of one of documentary culture’s supposed heroes getting mostly owned by his star villain, it’s downright disappointing.

Like Errol Morris, Michael Moore is a filmmaker who likes to think that he’s punching up but often ends up exposing his own hubris as much as that of the conservative power brokers he’s attacking. The climactic scene in Bowling for Columbine where he films himself leaving a photograph of a young victim of gun violence at Charlton Heston’s house is the peak of his obnoxiously self-aggrandizing tendencies.

I haven’t fully enjoyed any of Moore’s movies since then, but I have to admit that the new Fahrenheit 11/9 features some of his best passages in a while, and makes for a more satisfying watch than Morris’s film, even as its aims are less complex or sophisticated. While Morris tries to lay a trap for Bannon, Moore comes out swinging at the 45th president from the first second, overlaying Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score for The Omen over footage of Agent Orange’s inauguration. Like Morris with his Lucifer joke, I’m sure Moore would say that the Devil made him do it.

This being a Michael Moore film, Fahrenheit 11/9 is filled with many such pop-culture-fueled cheap shots, and it’s also all over the place structurally, beginning with an attempt to explain—like Morris—how Trump’s surprise election destabilized many aspects of American life and then jumping back and forth between narratives about the beginning of the still-ongoing drinking-water crisis in Flint, the much-publicized primary victory of socialist Democratic Party star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Parkland shooting and its aftermath, all to paint a panoramic picture of national suffering and resistance circa 2018. As usual, Moore doesn’t always bother to draw any really strong or logical connections between his segments, using sarcasm and outrage as connective tissue. And yet the material about Flint—the director’s hometown, and the turf he defended 29 years ago in Roger & Me—is infuriating and powerful in a way that shows him at his indignant, muckraking best: His instincts for explicating systemic corruption remain sharp and merciless, and in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, he has a malignant figurehead to batter from every possible angle.

The Flint sequences also allow Moore to introduce what some viewers will surely find to be Fahrenheit’s most infuriating aspect, although for me it was among its more impressive: some direct criticisms of Barack Obama and the old guard of the Democratic Party that are consistent with Bannon’s thesis in American Dharma—that Trump’s victory was a case of his populism allowing the Republicans to outflank their opponents on the left as well as the right.

It’s genuinely startling to watch a filmmaker who earned his greatest fame going in on Dubya apply the same tactics to Obama, without favor or mercy. Whether this new avenue of attack is Moore trying to curry favor with the hipster, Twitter-savvy left or constitutes his most honest political critique in a while will be a matter of political preference—and at a liberal festival like Toronto, he was preaching to the converted. But I was expecting to be bored and dutiful during Fahrenheit 11/9 and instead found myself intermittently engaged, enraged, and entertained.

Moore and Morris are brand-name nonfiction filmmakers whose stuff will eventually play in a theater near you, especially given that both have styled their new efforts as movies of the moment. Morris couldn’t have asked for a better context than the New Yorker controversy, while Moore is unapologetically trying his best to swing the upcoming November elections by making big-screen stars of Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow congressional up-and-comers. Still, the best documentary I’ve seen at TIFF so far—and the best film, period—is by a lesser-known artist: the Italian-born, Houston-based filmmaker Roberto Minervini. His 2015 feature The Other Side—a verite study of rural Louisiana focused on a group of militiamen convinced that martial law was imminent in Obama’s final days—remains the most affecting depiction and distillation of the Trump zeitgeist that I’ve yet seen.

In The Other Side, Minervini plunked himself down with a community of mostly white, economically anxious locals, capturing moments of grace and ugliness with equal vividness. His ability to immerse himself in a location bordered on the supernatural. His new movie, What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, is a companion piece and mirror image to The Other Side. It’s once again set in Louisiana (with additional sequences in Mississippi) but is focused entirely on African American subjects. In The Other Side, racism was woven into the fabric of daily conversation. Here, we’re shown the other-other side, with Caucasian characters showing up only in police uniforms during clashes with a chapter of the New Black Panthers.

The inclusion of scenes featuring a militant activist who draws their rhetoric and tactics from the late 1960s and ’70s means that What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? will be framed as a political film, and that’s certainly part of Minervini’s project. But I’d say his interest is more on individual arcs than trying to diagnose some larger social problem, à la Morris or Moore. The film is ultimately far less incendiary than its title—far more strange, tender, and mysterious with gleaming, tactile black-and-white cinematography that, combined with the astonishingly close proximity of the camera, casts a powerful visual spell.

Minervini’s lyricism and narration-free, long-take style is designed to prompt contemplation: Instead of needling his subject (like Morris) or nudging the viewer about how to think (Moore), he lets his unhurried yet precise assemblage of little narratives—the closing of a neighborhood bar, the relationship between two brothers, the preparations for Mardi Gras performances—open up intellectual and emotional pathways leading into the material and also beyond it. With all their skill, savvy, and semiotic brilliance, Moore and Morris remind us at all times that, yes, the world is on fire (American Dharma’s signature image of a five-alarm blaze), and in their more ambitious or arrogant moments, they act as if they know how to put it out.

Minervini isn’t so presumptuous; his movie simmers and even boils over a few times, but it also gives off a warmth that comes close to something like comfort.