If you walked into “American Dharma,” Errol Morris’s documentary about Stephen K. Bannon, knowing nothing about Donald Trump’s former adviser (who he is, what he’s done, what he stands for), you’d probably find him to be a fascinating, compelling, and at times even charming figure. If that sounds like a swipe against the movie, it is.
This is one of those drill-bit solo interview films in which Morris, in theory, adopts a stance that’s adversarial and exploratory as he grills world-shaking power players like Robert S. McNamara (“The Fog of War”) or Donald Rumsfeld (“The Unknown Known”). In this case, though, Morris abandons his trademark Interrotron camera, the contraption that locked his previous subjects into a vise-like gaze meant to reveal their every brain flicker of ego and doubt. “American Dharma” was shot in what looks like a military airplane hangar, where the 64-year-old Bannon, wearing a modified Army jacket (remember when rebel kids in the ’70s sported those?), with graying stubble and a head of thick Irish hair that he brushes back with shaggy professorial élan, sits opposite Morris, who is sometimes on camera, and joins in a spirited dialogue with him.
Bannon, apart from his former boss Donald Trump, may be the most combative political figure of his era, but in “American Dharma” he’s no raging fire-breather. He’s an avuncular and cultivated presence, with barely a hint of defensiveness; he seems to be playing the role of alt-right Teddy bear. (He’s a major fan of Morris’ “The Fog of War,” which he saw at Telluride.) The movie offers glimpses of his misdeeds, like a machine-gun montage of racially inflammatory headlines from the Breitbart website, but they’re folded into a picture of Bannon as a man of ideas whose quest is rooted in his devotion to the good solid working-class people he came from.
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Is that really who Steve Bannon is? That’s certainly a part of him. Yet watching “American Dharma,” it’s hard to escape the feeling that Errol Morris got played. The filmmaker comes off as a die-hard liberal romantic who’s desperate for Steve Bannon to reveal himself as a reasonable man. We see Bannon as he watches clips from “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Searchers,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and other movies he grew up with, and he talks about the soul-deep connection he had with characters like Gregory Peck’s Brigadier General Frank Savage, a hard-ass of nobility who tells his soldiers that it may be their mission to die. For Bannon, this sort of mission is dharma, which he defines as “the combination of duty, fate, and destiny.” He repeats that a few times, but all I could think was: Aren’t fate and destiny kind of the same thing? What does it say about you if even your defining credo is blustery and redundant wordplay?
In “American Dharma,” Bannon’s analysis of what’s wrong with the money-sloshing corporate-bureaucratic-government elite machine that has screwed over average Americans overlaps, in a major way, with the critique of that same machine you’d get from Michael Moore or Bernie Sanders. Yet when it comes to what Bannon would do to fix the machine, he parts ways. He wants to blow the machine up. He thinks we’re ready for a “revolution.” And what, exactly, does that mean? We never learn, because Bannon is a man who thinks, and talks, in fearless abstractions. The elite, by my math, would certainly include him (a former investment banker who made his fortune through a fluke syndication deal in liberal Hollywood), but Bannon doesn’t want to mess with that contradiction. His comic-book fantasy of an uprising of angry valiant middle Americans is supposed to melt our brains enough to explain the contradiction away.
Bannon can be specific about the things he wants to destroy (like NATO), but if Morris asks him what he wants to build in their place, he’ll cough up a homily about the people taking back their power. He’ll tell you that he’d trust 100 random rubes wearing MAGA hats at a Trump rally to run the government more than he would the 100 people who actually run it. His political “philosophy” comes down to throw-the-bums-out meets “Being There.”
Yet Errol Morris doesn’t question Bannon, let alone push him to the wall, on any of this. At one point, Morris says that he thinks there’s a “good” Bannon and a “bad” Bannon, and that the bad Bannon is the one who would let corporations destroy pollution laws. How, Morris asks, does that serve the public? And how does it not serve the elites?
Bannon never answers him, and this sets up a softball pattern that’s repeated throughout the film: On the rare occasions when Morris gets around to challenging Bannon (once every 20 minutes or so), Bannon ducks the question, and that’s that. He never punctures his freedom-fighter-for-Joe-Sixpack firebrand congeniality, and the film moves on to something else. At one point Morris calls Bannon “crazy,” but Bannon’s discourse is so rational on the surface that it’s never clear if Morris understands what Bannon’s craziness is truly about: his desire for a revolution that he’s the tipping point of. He’s an armchair megalomaniac — an elitist in warrior’s clothing.
Morris interviewed Bannon for five days, but after all that he gives us the umpteenth rehash of Trump’s election and the first year of his presidency. Bannon came to be thought of as Trump’s brain, an image that ultimately resulted in his getting tossed out. What he brought to the Trump mix, apart from his anti-globalist gobbledygook (as if an ideological commitment to “nationalism” could somehow turn back the hands of technology), was the Rove/Atwater tactics that Bannon had a down-and-dirty instinct for. He knew just how to spin the Billy Bush tape; it was his idea to invite Bill Clinton’s accusers to the second presidential debate, thus neutralizing the issue into a who’s the bigger hypocrite? showdown.
In “American Dharma,” Errol Morris keeps trying to understand Steve Bannon, which is the job of a journalist-filmmaker, but we never see him stand up to Bannon’s most brazen lies, like Bannon’s assertion that the racism that came out into the open in Charlottesville represented a trivial sideshow element of Donald Trump’s appeal. We never hear Bannon talk about his white nationalism; that’s all buried. (He says that when he was running Breitbart, the comments section was “not for the faint of heart,” but he says it with a wink, as if he was above it.) His new status as a forceful consultant to the European far right gets scant attention. Morris “contradicts” Bannon with video clips, but too much of the time he’d rather sit around with him and watch old movies. Would The New Yorker’s David Remnick, if he’d gone ahead with his plan to conduct a live public interview with Bannon, have done a more aggressive job? We’ll never know. But what you see in “American Dharma” isn’t investigative filmmaking — it’s a toothless bromance.