I don’t know why anyone would want to spend time with Steve Bannon in this year of our Lord 2020, but Errol Morris’s “American Dharma” is hitting a local movie screen at last and it proves to be repellent yet provocative viewing: An interview with the Devil in which the Devil is sure he has the upper hand, even when he doesn’t.
The problem is that many people may feel this particular devil doesn’t deserve an audience at all. “American Dharma” premiered to immediate controversy at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in September 2018, with Morris coming under fire for appearing to give the former Breitbart.com editor, alt-right architect, and Trump kingmaker free rein to espouse his toxic views on people and politics. Alison Klayman’s comparatively traditional Bannon documentary, “The Brink,” became the preferred alternative, while distributors shunned Morris’s movie until recently, when fledgling film company Utopia picked it up.
What’s the rumpus? Why has Morris, a Cambridge-based documentary legend with one Oscar (for “The Fog of War,” 2004) and a number of hits, come under fire? I think it’s because “American Dharma” indulges its subject’s ideology and his cracked “apocalyptic rationalist” idealism without countering it enough to feel like the filmmaker is fighting the good fight. Which may not be what Morris is trying to do in the first place. What he is trying to do, by contrast, remains a little too murky.
Previous Morris documentaries have put their subjects under the glare of the director’s “Interrotron,” a camera that seems to pin them to the screen. “American Dharma” places Bannon in a mock-up of the Quonset hut HQ from one of his favorite movies, the World War II Gregory Peck bomber pilot drama ”Twelve O’Clock High” (1949). From this film and other stalwart classics (“The Searchers,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), Bannon has derived his wobbly notion of a man’s dharma, made up of equal parts duty, fate, and destiny. It’s at times like these that I think the movies have done more damage to this country than any other medium.
Morris is an occasionally glimpsed back of the head in the corner of the screen, squawking when his subject posits something particularly outrageous. “Do you ever see yourself hastening the end of everything?” the director asks at one point, to which Bannon replies, “I don’t think we’ve hastened enough.”
As “American Dharma” leads us through the stages of Bannon’s career, from running Breitbart.com to running the Trump campaign to his ouster from the inner circle in the wake of the Charlottesville white-supremacist rallies to his current status as a “consultant” to overseas nationalist movements, a portrait emerges of a radical populist so warped by his hatred for the perceived “elites” that he wants to burn the system to the ground. A nationalist so self-righteous that he wants to withdraw America into profound isolationism. An anarchist, in other words.
Ironically, Bannon has arguably helped a corporate and moneyed elite consolidate their hold on the American levers of power, but never mind that. For a while, his realpolitik was just savvy and counterintuitive enough to work. The key to electing Trump? Paint Hilary Clinton as the embodiment of the elites and Trump as the agent of change. Weaponize the virulent commentariat at Breitbart.com. (“The angry voices, properly directed, had latent political power,” he says here.) Divert the furor over the “Access Hollywood” tape by staging a Trump rally. Let the major news media carry his water.
Morris doesn’t challenge any of this other than to note it scares the crap out of him. And when Bannon lets fly with ridiculous statements — “I don’t think Trump’s corrupt;” the president’s “travel ban” isn’t racist; the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are a creation of the left-wing news media — the director pushes back in the form of damning, inarguable onscreen barrages of headlines, social media feeds, and footage of tiki-torch marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” These tactics are effective for the audience while leaving Bannon himself in his bubble of certainty.
The reason “American Dharma” isn’t up there with “The Fog of War” (about former secretary of defense and Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara) is that Bannon seems impervious to doubt — the façade doesn’t crack to reveal any insight into self. The movie’s worth taking in, though, as a shaky confrontation with a very American kind of demon, one weaned on the shallow, heroic lies of Hollywood individualism, furious that life rarely works that way, and willing to wreck the house in response. One of Bannon’s favorite films, John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), includes the famous line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One senses he’ll print the legend if it kills us all.
Directed by Errol Morris. At the Brattle. 97 minutes. R (language, some sexual material).