“If there is anything common to my work it is normally a reaction to hysteria of some kind. There is now almost too much hysteria to react to. I’d be exhausted trying to keep up.”
Chris Morris is sitting outside a cafe near Warren Street station in London, meditating on his career to date as he unveils new film The Day Shall Come. But Morris is not here to relive former glories. Nine years after Four Lions, Morris has not returned to save us from fake news and duplicitous politicians with searing satire. He did all that decades ago.
With The Day Today, in 1994, Morris presented a nightmarish vision of television news eating itself – the hyperbole, flashy graphics and portentous tone turned up to 11. Brass Eye three years later went further, as it took on the cynical orchestration of media moral panics and the vacuity of pompous politicians and celebrities, all again illuminated with Morris’ unique brand of hardcore humour.
If you run into the room and say that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is an idiot, then you’re going to preach to the converted
A generation of viewers were entertained, enraged and educated in reading the codes of journalism, politics and television. The one-off “Paedogeddon!” episode in summer 2001 was the denouement of Morris’ first act, leading to its own moral panic. A perfect satirical circle.
Now, Morris is adamant that, despite these times seemingly demanding it, a reprise of his former style could not work in today’s politically divided era.
“I have realised at a ripe old age that if you run into the room and give everybody a bollocking or say that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is an idiot, then you’re going to preach to the converted,” he says.
“You make a lot of jokes about the thing that everybody already agreed with. Sure, the libtards love it. But I got bored of that a long time ago. 9/11 really just called time on it.
“I suspect that with Brass Eye, anybody who thought there was a public hysteria about drugs would like the idea of a made-up drug being debated in Parliament. But it wouldn’t really persuade anyone who didn’t think that.
“You see how little the public has changed its view about whether we should be in the European Union despite all the arguments. This old-fashioned idea that satire is a militant part of a dialectic debate is fine in a debating chamber kind of way. If you want to try and persuade people, a story is a better way of couching your satirical intent.”
The story of The Day Shall Come is eye-popping. As the pre-credits proclaim, this tale of a group of misfits led by Moses (played by outstanding newcomer Marchánt Davis, above, with Morris) who are cajoled, bribed and persuaded by FBI operatives into plotting an act of terror, is based on ‘100 true stories’.
Co-written with Succession’s Jesse Armstrong and directed by Morris, it taps into the chest-tightening powerlessness so many feel about injustices meted out on the disenfranchised, shining a light on the cynicism of the FBI running its ‘war on terror’ as an exercise in news management and PR, rather than easing tensions and safeguarding the public.
The film is by turns devastating and devastatingly funny, underpinned with a new sense of fury. It might just be Morris’s finest work. A bold claim? Perhaps, but believe the hype.
I discovered that this devilish plan was in fact seven construction workers who wanted to take over America by riding into Chicago on horses
“I saw a news story about the FBI arresting what they called an army, based in a warehouse in Miami, planning to take over America,” says Morris.
“Two years later I discovered that this devilish and devious plan was in fact seven construction workers who wanted to take over America by riding into Chicago on horses.
“So you believe something then discover it has been made to look ridiculous by reality. That sets you on a path of discovery. Suddenly you’re going state-to-state meeting FBI agents and the families of people sent to jail.”
It began with the PR tour the FBI regularly give filmmakers in Los Angeles. After Morris assured them he was “interested in workplace dynamics because we see the FBI portrayed in patently unrealistic ways on television” – which he describes as “an unbarefaced lie, a lie in costume, a soft untruth” – he was given the “real, grown-up” tour.
“It’s a rather drab environment,” he notes. “It looks nothing like 24, it looks nothing like Homeland. It looks shit.” He discovered a dynamic of pranks, “dicking around”, and intra-office rivalry.
“The biggest enmity is between the agents tasked with monitoring Sunni terrorism and – you know where this is going – the agents tasked with looking after Shia terrorism,” he says. “That’s a joke you wouldn’t even make up because it is too on the nose.”
Morris built a picture of the way the FBI operates, starting with the Liberty City Seven case of 2006.
“I met the children of the main ringleader,” he says. “This was a family of good people, living a low-level, impoverished existence. They were so poor they had to move into a camper van, and they were being offered thousands of dollars by the FBI? Why wouldn’t the guy start hustling them?
“When the Liberty City Seven were arrested, the FBI agents were laughing and the guys who were being arrested were laughing. ‘We’re terrorists?!’ They were thinking, this is insane, this is a joke – until three trials later, they’re in jail and suddenly it is not a joke.”
It is fair to say that the FBI is the biggest creator of terrorist plots in the United States
As he talks, Morris is harassed by a hoverfly, attracted by his yellow cycling jacket. At least, it looks like a hoverfly. It could be a state-of-the-art mini FBI drone.
“Considering they’re meant to look like wasps, they fly in such a different way,” says Morris, with authority. “Sorry, if you cycle for six miles through rush-hour traffic, you’re going to be babbling awful shit. It is early enough in the morning for zoology leakage to come through.”
After briefly pondering whether we heard Zoology Leakage on the John Peel show in the 1980s, Morris returns to the subject in hand.
“Each case is different. But the common elements are this programme of self-incrimination, the use of informants to befriend and encourage somebody to go off track. Normally that person is poor,” he says.
“There was one guy in Tampa, Florida where the FBI agents were caught on tape saying, ‘This guy hasn’t got a pot to piss in, we don’t need to give him more than $50 and he will do something’. In Boston, they marshalled a schizophrenic man with drug problems into coming up with a mad plot to fly model planes into the dome of the Capitol building.
“In Portland, a guy went to the FBI saying he was worried his son might be falling in with the hotheads at the local Mosque. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on him’ and then spent 18 months winding him up until he was trying to detonate a truck bomb at the Christmas lights ceremony.
“As far as they’re concerned, if you get this person to do enough bad things, then you’ve done your job – whether or not they would ever have done them without your help. But if you’re providing friendship, ideas, the means, the money, the weapons to carry out a plot, who’s making the plot – you or them?
“That’s why it’s fair to say the FBI is the biggest creator of terrorist plots in the United States. Because they create a plot, get the suspect to carry it out then arrest them for carrying it out. It’s astonishing.”
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What of the FBI agents and lawyers in pursuit of high conviction rates and public relations successes, in which they can loudly claim to be keeping America safe?
“One of the first people I spoke to had just retired from the FBI. He had been called as a prosecution witness on one of these cases and been so appalled by the way the investigation was done that he turned witness for the defence.
“These are Republicans, true believers in America. Another one found the government lying to him on the same day he was watching the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they are Nazi officers going, ‘are we the bad guys?’ on BBC America. He had that ‘are we the bad guys?’ moment after serving the government for 22 years.”
Boris is not doing brilliantly. He’s stumbling against things that his theory-driven calculator droids have not anticipated
While governments telling untruths is nothing new, Morris senses a change in politics. “It’s bonanza time for bad behaviour, which is destabilising because we’ve grown up in strangely stable times. These days, the lying is more brazen,” he says.
“But actually, Boris is not doing brilliantly. He’s stumbling against certain unseen things that his theory-driven calculator droids have not anticipated.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that the people opposed to him aren’t also going bonkers. Everybody’s going a bit bonkers. And in that environment a lie gets lost, but they’re not forgotten. It will be a long time before the wash cycle is finished. This is a very long wash. With some very delicate jumpers, being boiled to the size of a Quaver.
“But we’re in the middle of something. And I still think people don’t like being lied to.”