Critic's Notebook: 'Bannon's War' Profiles the Ever-Controversial Presidential Advisor
The 'Frontline' documentary deconstructs the man who wants to cause the "deconstruction of the administrative state."
It would be awfully nice if the new Frontline episode about Steve Bannon were a post-mortem (of the political kind, of course). Sadly, the documentary, premiering Tuesday on PBS, demonstrates that the embattled presidential strategist may currently be down, he’s far from out. A concise and illuminating look at its subject’s unlikely rise to power, Bannon’s War well lives up to its advance warning that it “contains mature content that may not be suitable for all audiences” — like anyone easily prone to nightmares.
So who exactly is the man who seems intent on — as he so memorably put it in one of his rare public appearances — the “deconstruction of the American state?” As the narrator intones, he’s a “strategist, revolutionary, provocateur,” one who’s come a long way from his working-class upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, in a family who worshipped JFK.
“He’s someone who lives to fight,” says The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, in one of the onscreen comments delivered by journalists who somehow manage not to retch. The interview subjects include several of Bannon’s former colleagues at Breitbart News, some of whom quit when they realized that the right-wing news site was essentially becoming an arm of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Bannon’s War provides a sobering look at the Trump administration’s first attempt at a travel ban that provoked widespread protests and legal fights. Bannon expected and relished the ensuing chaos and media coverage, according to the film. That’s why the ban was announced on a Friday morning, so the protestors would have free time over the weekend. It was all deliberate, designed to show to Trump’s base that things were indeed being stirred up on a massive scale. “Bannon sees disruption as power,” one commentator observes.
We see Bannon’s outsider leanings emerging early in life, running as an “anti-establishment” candidate for student class president. But he wasn’t such an outsider when he joined the Navy, seeing it as a stepping stone to a political career, and later attending Harvard Business School and joining Goldman Sachs.
Rather than stay on Wall Street, he went to Hollywood to make deals financing film and television shows and became wealthy by his late forties. (The documentary doesn’t mention it specifically, but a good chunk of Bannon’s fortune was derived from his involvement in Seinfeld, which makes reruns of that sitcom now almost too painful to watch.)
The events of 9/11 proved a turning point for Bannon, who is shown delivering a video speech at a Vatican conference in which he declares Islam to be a threat to the “Judeo-Christian West.” He started producing documentaries, including In the Face of Evil about his hero Ronald Reagan (film critic Ann Hornaday describes it as “apocalyptic,” which is an understatement); Generation Zero, inspired by the book The Fourth Turning, which predicted that the country would soon find itself once again embroiled in a crisis of historical proportions: and The Undefeated, a hagiographic portrait of Sarah Palin. Palin — showing more common sense than usual — resisted Bannon’s entreaties to run for president in 2012.
It was his alliance with provocateur Andrew Breitbart that truly fueled Bannon’s political aspirations. Bannon induced such mega-rich right-wing figures as the Mercer family to invest millions in the news site, and then took it over when Breitbart died suddenly at age 43. Bannon shifted the site’s attention more closely to D.C. affairs and advanced its themes of “populist nationalism.” Along the way, he became close with Senator Jeff Sessions, and his aide Stephen Miller (gee, whatever happened to those guys?).
One of Breitbart’s most avid readers was Trump, which was only natural since its articles are short and contain words with few syllables. Soon Bannon had unofficially, and then officially, joined the Trump campaign. It was a match made in heaven, with Bannon finally finding a candidate just as pugnacious and disruptive as he is.
Trump won the election, thanks to such trademark Bannon strategies as countering the leaked Hollywood Access tape with a pre-debate press conference featuring Bill Clinton’s female accusers. After Trump won the election, Bannon crafted Trump’s instantly notorious inauguration speech in which Trump seemed to summon the forces of hell with its description of “American carnage” and which wags joked sounded better in the original German.
If Bannon was intending to disrupt the system, he certainly seemed to be succeeding, throwing the country and political establishment off-balance with a dizzying array of executive orders that echoed the now-infamous whiteboard wish list in his “War Room.” He was even given a seat at the National Security Council, a position virtually unprecedented for a political advisor.
But things seemed to go south after Bannon’s CPAC appearance; it seemed to herald the “beginning of the end,” according to Frontline, pointing to Trump’s disapproval of Bannon’s increasing prominence. The ruddy-faced strategist began to be referred to as “President Bannon”; his Time magazine cover story was emblazoned with the headline “The Great Manipulator”; and he was hilariously depicted by Saturday Night Live as a demonic puppet master holding a buffoonish Trump’s strings. By the time he was removed from the NSC and Trump dismissed his importance in a scathing press interview, Bannon looked like he was on the outs.
But the film makes clear that it would be foolish to count out Bannon so early. “Nobody else speaks to his [Trump’s) base as powerfully as Steve Bannon does,” says The New York Times’ Peter Baker. “That’s not something Jared Kushner can do, that’s not something Ivanka Trump can do.” And so, even if Bannon has learned that it’s dangerous to complete with his boss’s son-in-law, we must remain very, very afraid.