Of all the indicators of exactly how fast public life moves in the twenty-first century, few are more perplexing or disturbing than the fact that it’s now possible for liberals to experience nostalgia for Steve Bannon. No matter how much one has tried to keep up with this acceleration, the ever-increasing pace at which the inconceivable becomes the normative and then the banal, Bannon’s return has to come as a something of a jolt.
The qualities that make Bannon a compelling figure are on display in Errol Morris’s new documentary “American Dharma,” which will have its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 29 and 30. Articulate and passionate about his convictions, Bannon is a more stable antagonist than his former boss. Moreover, it’s more stimulating to discuss his grand world historical proclamations than Trump’s ever-metastasizing grotesquery or the brutally effective arch-cynicism of a Mitch McConnell. The trouble with this is that Bannonism’s dubious substance has proven less politically effective than the vacuity of Trumpism. With Bannon in exile, Trump’s brand among conservatives has been undiminished. Conversely, Breitbart’s influence has receded and Bannon himself has found himself abandoned by his former allies.
The recent controversy concerning Bannon’s cancelled appearance at the New Yorker Festival all but ensures that the discussion surrounding Morris’s movie will center on whether or not it should exist at all. If Bannon has been effectively marginalized, what’s the point in retrieving him, even temporarily, from the dustbin of history? Politically, it’s a worthwhile question, especially considering that it’s no exaggeration to say that Trump and his circle are among the most overexposed human beings who have ever lived. Does Bannon really need another camera on him, let alone Morris’s? More amorphously, one must also reckon with the peculiar ability of Trump and his allies to turn any media coverage, no matter how negative, to their own considerable advantage. This phenomenon, a still poorly understood mixture of spite, schadenfreude, and stubborn, misplaced pride that is one of the key levers in the historical mechanism than catapulted Trump to power, is sure to keep future historians stymied for decades. For the time being, however, we could do a lot worse than to look for guidance to the oft-quoted line by anonymous Twitter user dril, by any standard a more perspicacious observer of the digital age than Steve Bannon: “go ahead. keep screaming “Shut the F—k Up ” at me. it only makes my opinions Worse”
In the debate about whether or not giving Bannon a platform can ever be justified, “American Dharma” should be an interesting test case because, at least in theory, Errol Morris, a respected liberal intellectual and legendary documentary filmmaker, is the ideal man to take on Steve Bannon. The rationale for letting Bannon talk at the New Yorker festival went something like this: let him speak in the arena of spirited debate, and he will show for himself the kind of person he is. This approach — giving a troublesome subject just enough of a platform to condemn himself — reached perhaps its most elevated expression in Morris’s 2003 film “The Fog of War,” which set former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara before Morris’s patented interrotron, an cinematographic apparatus designed to conduct interviews with a distinctive confrontational directness, and let him loose to unravel the absurd, murderous logic behind the Vietnam War. Morris himself seems to have an understanding of the stakes. While David Remnick invited Bannon to headline a festival of art and ideas – as a headliner no less – Morris introduced his new documentary in remarks recorded by the Hollywood Reporter as “a kind of horror movie.”
As befits our partisan age, “American Dharma” unfolds as more of a zero-sum proposition than Morris’s previous interview-based documentaries, with Morris himself giving voice to his subject’s liberal opposition. There’s a tricky two-sidedness to the project: Morris and Bannon have conflicting politics, but they’re also competing as storytellers, giving the director the double task of accurately representing Bannon’s narrative while putting forth one of his own. The imperatives of the project are evidently novel enough to lead the director in new directions.
It would be unfair to expect “American Dharma” to pull off what was achieved by “The Fog of War,” which looks more and more like an unrepeatable act. Not only an artistic peak for its director, a work of rare formal and intellectual coherence, it also presents the same difficulties as following up a film like “Borat”: once people know the game you’re playing, they’re much less likely to let you punk them. Donald Rumsfeld, the subject of Morris’s “Fog of War” companion piece “The Known Unknown,” came prepared to make sure the director didn’t have his way with him. As a result, that film is markedly less satisfying than its predecessor, which had the very significant advantage of historical distance as well as a subject dogged by the need to get something off his chest. Nonetheless, “The Known Unknown” becomes valuable over the course of Rumsfeld’s studied evasions as a depiction of the degradation of political language that occurred under the Bush administration, as elegantly represented by the former defense secretary’s rigged forays into epistemology.
“American Dharma” does away with the interrotron altogether, opting for an entirely new style. Inspired by Bannon’s love of classic Hollywood movies (the serious, masculine ones – at no point in the film does Bannon evince much in the way of a sense of humor), Morris sets him up in a replica of the Air Force base from the 1949 Gregory Peck WWII movie “Twelve O’Clock High.” Playing off a his subject’s stint as a self-proclaimed “avant-garde” filmmaker (among his disparate careers, Bannon directed a handful of right wing agitprop films), Morris intersperses clips from films by the likes of David Lean and John Ford, for which Bannon supplies his own brand of interpretation. While his previous interview films isolated their subjects in a white, vacuous space, facing the camera, Morris here shoots Bannon from a variety of moodily lit, expressionistic angles, with the effect that his mug bounces unpredictably about the frame over the course of their conversation (the eccentric framings don’t stop here – viewers who for whatever reason burn with the desire to see Steve Bannon’s eyeballs in delectable, anatomical close-up will not leave disappointed). More seriously, Morris never quite figures out how to present the recent events his movie covers. Often possessed of a clarifying visual wit, Morris here allows himself to offer up multiple highlight reels of events not long passed that look like something that could emerge from any number of less pedigreed issue docs. When he tries to represent the deluge of modern media by showing newspaper headlines and tweets cascading against an ominous, dark-colored background, the movie comes to visually resemble something still worse: cable news.
The most direct effect of the film’s stylistic muddle is that none of Bannon’s ideas comes across quite so clearly as his idea of himself. Bannon relishes playing the bad guy, and Morris happily obliges him, shooting him walking purposefully down the streets of a seemingly bombed out movie set or accompanying him with the bombastic score of a Hollywood conspiracy thriller. That Bannon is indeed a sort of antiestablishment radical – the sort of Lenin figure he purportedly aspires to be – is taken on faith. His many years at Goldman Sachs are treated as a sort of sentimental education for his later populism, and no mention is made of the many billionaires who fill the purportedly insurgent administration. It’s nigh impossible to defend the populist credentials of Trump’s nakedly plutocratic tax bill. Morris, crucially, doesn’t even make Bannon try. After all, if Bannon is sincere about defending the working class from the predations of the elite and still decides to throw his lot in with Trump, he might not be the brilliant rationalist he would like us to think he is. He might be the biggest sucker in the world.
It’s this tendency to let Bannon dictate the terms of the debate – even as Morris offers at times spirited pushback – that makes “American Dharma” a particularly aggravating watch. Chief among Bannon’s presuppositions is Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture.” Even with a whole film to make the case, there’s never any argument for why John Ford movies should be the best framework for understanding Steve Bannon more compelling than the fact that Bannon himself clearly prefers for this to be so. The culture references can act as a sort of decoy. To describe his exit from the White House, Bannon alludes to Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his rejection by erstwhile protégé Prince Hal upon the latter’s ascent to the throne (as represented onscreen in Orson Welles’s 1965 masterwork “Chimes at Midnight”). Though vocally incredulous, Morris chooses not to confront his interlocutor with the less glamorous reality: that he left on bad terms, and that his tentative attempt to challenge his former boss ended in what was by any standard ignominious failure, with Bannon both insulted and marginalized. If nothing else, it’s a colossal missed opportunity to see the president’s former strategist react onscreen to Trump’s derisive sobriquet for him, “Sloppy Steve.” Instead, Morris, deferring to his subject, prints the legend.
Morris’s inability to control the terms of his film betrays some of his own limitations. Even in plainly superior films like “The Fog of War” and “The Known Unknown,” Morris never seems particularly comfortable addressing his subject’s politics. Fascinated by the means, he’s liable leave the ends unchallenged. When Morris is faced with an explicitly political figure in Bannon, this relative weakness becomes a fatal flaw. Early in the film, Morris theorizes a “Good Bannon,” the rebel whose heart bleeds for the common man, as well as a “Bad Bannon.” When it comes to this latter figure, however, Morris stumbles, describing the worst of Bannon’s dark side as what essentially amounts to small government conservatism. At another point, Morris’s response to Bannon’s paradoxical ideas is to call him “crazy.” The lack of specificity is important, because if one is going to go through the trouble of making a film about Steve Bannon, it’s imperative to describe him accurately.
Time after time, Morris is presented with the essential contradictions in Bannon’s ideas, and time after time he turns away. How does one make sense of a populist who thunders against elites, but remains conspicuously reticent on the topic of anything that might actually threaten their material interests? Bannon’s is in fact not an uncommon derangement: what is “globalism,” after all, but global capitalism with the key part repressed. But with all his imagery of burning flags and collapsing buildings, Morris is so preoccupied with the flamboyant destructiveness of Bannon’s brand of bosses’ populism that he neglects to consider what it exists to defend. This is all the more galling given the results of historical convergences between xenophobic populism and elite interests, with Morris’s sudden bout of inarticulateness effectively insulating Bannon from the most severe accusations that have been made against him. For all of Morris’s direct criticism of his subject, the topic of fascism is not seriously broached in “American Dharma.”
Thus, when Morris’s film reaches its effective climax with the Charlottesville rallies, the results feel hollow. The director ramps up the score to a melodramatic apex, cutting between frightening footage of the rallies (including images of the attack that killed Heather Heyer) and Bannon giving out the standard issue Republican denials (that white supremacists represent a fringe group without standing in the movement, and so on). The filmmaker’s instinct isn’t misplaced – the Charlottesville rally does indeed provide an opening to connect Bannon’s ideas to their most monstrous exponents, a vulnerability that contributed directly to his dismissal from the Trump White House. Having failed to delineate Bannon’s thinking, however, Morris is unable to complete the case against him. Rather than acting as the statement of purpose that the director intends, the scene is something more disappointing and banal: an image of Bannon getting away with it, once again.
“American Dharma” does contain one moment of genuine surprise and revelation, but its subject is not Bannon but Morris himself. It’s also the one time that Bannon genuinely drops his cagey, scripted composure and, not unrelatedly, the single point at which his perspective becomes somewhat sympathetic. It comes during a discussion of the 2016 Democratic primary, in which Morris mentions that he voted for Hillary Clinton. Steve Bannon, briefly, is sincerely incredulous that the director of “The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known,” of all people, could do such a thing. Clinton, after all, is a proud acolyte of Henry Kissinger, who looms as a malignant presence in both of those films, ominously doing his time-tested Zelig-meets-Satan routine in the background. To his credit, Morris responds honestly: he voted for Hillary out of fear – fear of Trump, fear of Bannon himself, fear of the America they might usher in. It’s an illuminating moment, not least as regards Morris’s new film and its stark shortcomings. There’s no doubt that Morris is sincere in wanting to warn as many people as possible about what Bannon represents. His message, however, comes too late, and his horror movie does alarmingly little in the service of clarity. Fear, it turns out, has a fog all its own.
This story "Steve Bannon Gets The Best Of Errol Morris" was written by Daniel Witkin.