American Dharma

October 14, 2020

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...it feels right that Morris allows us, the viewer, to draw our own conclusions on the destructive nature of Bannon’s social and political ideas.
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American Dharma

Jarrod Walker
Year: 2019
Director: Errol Morris
Cast:

Steve Bannon, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Errol Morris

Distributor: iWonder
Format:
Released: October 14, 2020
Running Time: 95 minutes
Worth: $15.00

FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

…it feels right that Morris allow us, the viewer, to draw our own conclusions on the destructive nature of Bannon’s social and political ideas.

Errol Morris has carved a significant profile into the Mount Rushmore of documentary filmmaking. He’s a filmmaker known for the strength of his convictions, his highly cinematic flourishes and, when interviewing a subject, his ability to get to the heart of things whether that subject is aware of it, or not.

In his 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Morris interviewed Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, about his role in the escalation and human cost of (and political unrest surrounding) the Vietnam war. Grilling McNamara, while seated behind the camera, with his subject staring straight down the barrel (McNamara, man of advanced age, had an almost absurdly crystalline faculty for memory recall) gave the proceedings an almost interrogatory vibe. Morris deployed a similar style when filming his interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, in The Unknown Known.

In this latest documentary, American Dharma, Morris has chosen Steve Bannon as his subject, using the same ‘Q and A’ style he’s used in the aforementioned documentaries. Steve Bannon is, for many people, The Devil. Morris premiered American Dharma a while ago at the Venice International Film Festival, not long after the New Yorker Festival cancelled an on-stage interview event with Bannon, when other guests of the festival threatened to pull out.

Before he was Trump’s Campaign strategist, Bannon made millions in Hollywood, he made and produced films, schmoozed with the ‘Hollywood liberal elites’, was a political strategist for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York  star Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign, had worked for Goldman Sachs, had been the executive chairman of the right wing conservative Breitbart News. Once Trump was elected, he then served as the White House’s chief strategist during the first year of Trump’s term. He also infamously served on the board of Cambridge Analytica, the data-analytics firm involved in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data brouhaha. So, he’s a divisive figure any way you cut it, while also being something of a raconteur. He’s also thrown his support behind a number of right-wing political leaders in Europe such as French National Rally’s Marine Le Pen and the Italian League’s Matteo Salvini. Essentially, whether you despise him or not, Bannon makes for an interesting, if sometimes odious, subject for a documentary.

Morris uses Bannon’s love of films as his way ‘in’. Bannon’s all-time favourite is 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck as an all-or-nothing nihilistic military commander sending his men on bombing missions and encouraging them to see themselves as ‘already dead’. Peck’s do-or-die leadership, pragmatic and blunt-edged, seems to resonate with Bannon who sees himself as a similarly duty-bound leader, filling a space in the greater historical perspective, a change agent spearheading ‘revolution’ on behalf of ‘the common man’. The ‘elites’ are the ones in Washington, who conspire to consolidate wealth and power while ‘the little guy’ struggles to make ends meet. The ‘elites’ are the cigar chomping assholes in mahogany rooms who send John Q Citizen off to a foreign war we don’t need, more meat for the military-industrial complex’s grinder.

High minded thoughts indeed but riddled with irony and devoid of self-awareness. What Bannon really doesn’t open up about is his xenophobia, which goes hand in hand with his anti-globalisation views. He wants America to be great, but he also wants it to be a walled city. To keep the riff raff out and the best of the USA in. Exactly how this ‘American Utopia’ will work is never explained; if Bannon were more abstract, you could frame him and hang him on a wall. His strange belief in a repeating cycle of history that ebbs and flows, with movements that can be predicted like weather and ridden like a wave, is specious reasoning at best.

Bannon goes on to cite his other favourite films: Bridge on the River Kwai and The Searchers, more duty-bound ‘men of honour’ that he can attach his aspirations to. He further delves into his views on the Buddhist/Hindu/Sikh concept of dharma (which is so nebulous, it’s still not entirely clear what it actually means to Bannon) and the archetype of the American leader.

Dharma is invoked by Bannon as his belief that an individual’s duty, destiny and fate can be baked into a single cake that serves as a sort of mission statement for his life and the way he sees himself fitting into the political chaos that he’s helped give rise to. The right person, at the right time.

He’s an affable guy, to be sure, but he’s mannered and controlled in the gaze of Morris’s camera. He’s not pressed with any difficult questions by Morris, he’s not taken to task with any degree of severity as Morris covers the 2016 election, the beginnings of Breitbart News, Trump’s campaign and Bannon’s involvement in it, as well as Bannon’s time in the White House.

Bannon’s clearly a fan of Errol Morris and the documentaries he’s made, mentioning The Fog of War and The Unknown Known as evidence that Morris is surely able to make sense of the political insanity in which the US in embroiled and empathise with Bannon’s own views.

It’s from this exchange that the ‘kissy kissy’ make-nice tone of their relationship is clear. Though, if Morris were to batter Bannon with tougher questions, his documentary subject would most likely get up and leave the room. Still, it’s in these moments that there are also some telling comments, such as one exchange where Morris speaks of his son’s disappointment in him when he revealed that he had voted for Hillary Clinton. Bannon is horrified, telling Morris that he “should’ve known better”. Morris loudly retorts “…I was afraid of you guys, afraid of what you represent. I thought she was the best hope to defeat Trump, to defeat Bannon…I did it out of fear”.

Bannon contemplates the answer, he is silent, perhaps even lost for words. It’s one of the few moments where Morris cuts through the ideological bullshit, serving up an alternate viewpoint to Bannon that’s in stark contrast to the way he contextualises a lot of his own paranoid and xenophobic beliefs as ‘patriotic’ or in defence of ‘the common man’.

Bannon is clearly a man on a mission, though, like most nationalist zealots, he’s convinced that he’s right but is wilfully oblivious (or pretends to be) to the racist and xenophobic repercussions of the rhetoric that he espouses. As for Morris, he stands back and lets us, the viewer, make our own assessments. It’s a surprisingly light approach, given the nature of the subject, but it would have been too easy to draw a line under Bannon and write him off as an enabler to Trump’s narcissistic, authoritarian wet dream.

Given the times we live in, Errol Morris’s decision to not be heavy handed with a counter-view and to just let Bannon state his opinions, will no doubt be seen as sympathetic, yet Morris himself has stated of Bannon’s nationalist views: “The heart of it is diabolical…It’s about destroying, not building. That’s hate. And that’s really, really, really scary. This is a bad time in America. People are going crazy. Myself among them.”

In presenting us with a facet of Steve Bannon that’s approachable, reasonable and considered, we have to contend with Bannon’s humanity, his lived experiences and personal motivations behind his actions and beliefs. In a time where our political climate is so polarised, many people are incapable of dealing with (or even acknowledging) any semblance of moral ambiguity. People with contentious views and beliefs are simply ‘de-platformed’ and shut down, so it feels right that Morris allows us, the viewer, to draw our own conclusions on the destructive nature of Bannon’s social and political ideas.

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/american-dharma/id1490663035

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