American Dharma: Steve Bannon Documentary Cannot Justify Existence

Errol Morris' new documentary, American Dharma, attempts to get honest answers out of Steve Bannon. That might be an impossible task.

There should be no fear of addressing a political opponent, even one as perilous as Steve Bannon, in an honest and genuine discourse. This principle (and the media attention it would generate) is precisely what the New Yorker Festival attempted to renew last month when Bannon was invited to share a dialogue about his frankly repugnant ideas. In a sincere debate of political beliefs—such as the kind Errol Morris pursues in his new documentary about the banished Trump advisor and happy nationalist—Bannon’s rooted ideology of bigotry, cynicism, and a crude rationalization for the worst excesses of greed masquerading as capitalism would disintegrate.

Yet while attempting to make that picture in American Dharma, Morris finds himself ultimately negotiating the finer points of a deal with the proverbial Devil. Bannon is here to court the credibility afforded subjects of Morris’ Oscar winning lens, but he has little intention of inviting the filmmaker’s full scrutiny. Eagerly praising Morris’ earlier documentaries on other fallen angels who once served at the highest levels of presidential politics, chiefly Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, Bannon covets comparisons between himself and that infamous Secretary of Defense. This after all brandishes the legitimacy of his ideas (and historical import), even as he attempts to pivot from honestly evaluating them. The severity of the hill Morris is trying to climb is evident when Bannon genially claims he regularly quotes Milton’s Lucifer by saying, “I would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

So as a consequence, it’s only fair to wonder that if, like Faust, Morris is failing to find much room to get a good faith answer out of Bannon about his role in perpetuating the rhetoric and policies that’ve led to an erosion of our civic institutions. McNamara wanted to both defend and critically examine his record when he invited Morris into his world, but Bannon spends his cinematic interviews constantly trying to rewrite his own. In such a blatant reach toward historical revisionism, it becomes difficult to justify this documentary’s existence.

Within the context of the film, Bannon sizes up his audience like a well-read salesman, knowing both his filmmaker and this director’s eventual film festival audience. The title American Dharma comes from Bannon’s repeated comparisons of himself to Gregory Peck in the World War II drama, Twelve O’Clock High. Showing an appreciation for classic cinema, Bannon attempts to play to the cineaste’s passions by making even more extravagant allusions to Alec Guinness’ Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai and John Wayne’s characters in both The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Well, the legend in Bannon’s own mind makes this film a journey into narcissism that is either channeled via delusion or dishonesty.

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In practice, Morris appears intent on giving Bannon enough rope to hang himself, but for much of the documentary, the political brawler is just enjoying the spin of his own sanitized record, both as an attempted filmmaker and producer in Hollywood back in the day, and then as the Breitbart chairman who grew the website into the online home of alt-right outrage. But the sequences of American Dharma that are the most persuasive are Bannon’s recollections on the nuts and bolts of the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump, for which he came in late as the chief executive officer.

These are the stories of which Bannon is fondest of, not least of all because he implicitly can take the most credit for the enormous success that followed. While he stops short of claiming he is why Trump is president, there is little doubt that the former Naval officer brought a discipline and clarity to the now all-too familiar Trumpian chaos that had swallowed a disorganized campaign by August 2016. Bannon even wistfully recalls discovering during his first week that the campaign headquarters was taking weekends off less than three months before the election. Bannon, it would seem, is one of the few who actually believed Trump would be president.

When Bannon gets into procedural process of day-to-day sausage making, as opposed to discussing what is actually in the meat and wares he’s selling, it is easy to see the seductive quality that allowed Bannon to flourish by Trump, as well as ultimately repel the mercurial celebrity-politician. Beyond simply having a flair for self-aggrandizement, Bannon also reveals in the documentary time and again his ability to digest and appreciate historical perspective. In the film, he makes contrasts between himself and Orson Welles’ version of Falstaff, the Shakespearian character charged with raising an ungrateful and disloyal Henry V. However, a juxtaposition with Thomas Cromwell—Henry VIII’s most efficient minister until the rotund monarch grew annoyed and had the statesman executed—might be more apt. Either way, Bannon’s comprehension of the influence and manipulation of power makes him a rare figure from Trump’s inner-circle: someone who knows what he’s doing and sees a picture bigger than the 24-hour cable news cycle.

further reading: The Favourite Review

That also makes the smiling doublespeak Bannon cherishes with Morris all the more disquieting. Despite boasting to the documentarian that he saw the immediate power of Breitbart’s fury-laden comment section years ago, and the advantage of “weaponizing” that anger, Bannon then plays dumb about the fruits of such labors. When Morris broaches the tragedy of Charlottesville in 2017, during which predominantly white men marched in solidarity to the same Anti-Semitic and racist chants a those echoed in Nazi Germany, Bannon shrugs with his trademark ambivalence, suggesting that it was just another flashpoint between his so-called populism versus the liberal elitism borne from globalist policies. Bannon rejoices in Trump’s ultimately combative reaction to the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, which ended with a clearly weaponized white man, who’d marched with the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates, driving his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, injuring many and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Bannon relishes in showcasing his intellect but spends the documentary alternating between the role of altruistic court administrator and well-meaning court jester, acting naïve to the insidiousness of Trump creating a false equivalency between the Charlottesville protests. Morris juxtaposes Bannon’s spattering of excuses for the bigots with many of the Breitbart headlines from Bannon’s tenure on the site, but the effort seems doomed. While it is easy to see these headlines are likely designed to stoke the fears and sense of victimhood that are the cornerstone of white supremacy, Morris is not able to catch Bannon in his hypocrisy because Bannon does not care if he’s a hypocrite. Like Trump, the facts are immaterial to the desire of projecting a message, and for Bannon it is one of supposed populist concerns for “the little guy” and the building of a political world order that still mostly empowers the rich, but now with a more nationalistic and sadistic worldview. What makes it scarier is he likely has a better idea of what that really means than Trump does, yet Bannon still feigns the role of doomed hero despite Morris’ best attempts to provoke an earnest reflection on the divisiveness he’s helped unleash.

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Bannon is not Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai or even Japanese officer Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Both were men of their word who were forthright about their beliefs, even when they ended in folly and death in the case of Nicholson. The same goes for the other morality plays that Bannon name-checks, like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, a bigot who learns his worldview is too narrow by the film’s end and remains banished from his home as a result. Morris attempts to get Bannon to stand by his convictions, for good or ill, as earnestly as Guinness stands by (and then falls on) the detonator of that bridge, but Bannon is always moving the target, which makes this major spotlight frustratingly wasted. Bannon is a guy who wants the respect of being there, but shirks responsibility for the train when it goes off the rails and into the river. Madness, indeed.

American Dharma is now playing at the New York Film Festival.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.