'American Dharma': Film Review | Venice 2018
The unflappable documaker Errol Morris interviews an incendiary Steve Bannon.
American Dharma is meant to leave its audience shaken, whatever side they’re on. Filmmaker Errol Morris’ subject is Stephen K. Bannon, ideologue of the alt-right and Donald Trump’s campaign manager and one-time advisor. While deceptively placid on the surface, their exchange of views is electrified and contradicted by a nervous deluge of headlines, photos, videos and Twitter feeds that reveal what kind of issues are really at stake behind the friendly facade. Though stylistically quite different from the director’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, it shows the same ability to engage the viewer in American politics through a strategy of detached passion.
Also unexpected are the numerous excerpts from beloved classic movies like Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck as a tough Air Force general during World War II; David Lean’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, with Alec Guinness as a manly British lieutenant; and various John Wayne films, including John Ford’s The Searchers and My Darling Clementine. They are introduced as being among Bannon’s favorite films, which he watches over and over again for inspiration and “life lessons.” They have a common refrain: A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to be a hero, and he has to recognize an urge to self-sacrifice as his personal “dharma”— duty, fate, destiny and obligation.
Morris gently explores this concept as he and Bannon face each other across a desk inside a wooden airport hangar that mimics the set of Twelve O’Clock High. One of the last shots in the pic uses the hangar to end the interview with a visual bang, a metaphor of wanton destruction that leaves the viewer with goose bumps. If anyone has doubts about Morris’ own point of view, seeing that he never raises his voice to shout down his subject, this conclusive image should make it very clear where he’s at.
Bannon admits that he advocates a "fairly radical restructuring” of society to disrupt the system and overturn the current elites. “We need killers,” he says, “who have the guts to do it. … Trump had it and he’s president.” At another point, called a revolutionary and a mad bomber by the director, Bannon calmly admits, “We have to clear out some of the underbrush.”
It should give one pause to learn that Bannon attends the Telluride Film Festival "off and on" and was inspired to direct documentaries after seeing Morris’ film on McNamara. (Bannon has nine directing credits, including his Ronald Reagan doc In the Face of Evil, and many more producing credits on films aimed at conservative audiences.)
In the sketchy biographical info he divulges, we learn that he was born into a hardcore Democratic family, became a Navy officer in the 1970s and then worked at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker. In 2007, he met Andrew Breitbart and co-founded the far-right website Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right. Though the pages flash by too quickly to read, a montage of inflammatory Breitbart headlines conveys the spirit of the radically racist, white supremacist site.
Morris splits him into the “good Bannon” who wants to help out the working class and the “bad Bannon” whose aim is war, destruction and turning the world upside down and whose ideology really favors big business and the rich, not the poor.
Bannon eagerly replies that he sees a revolution coming — a chilling idea underlined by the image of a burning American flag and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s sinister music that brings to mind catastrophes gone by.
Bannon's work for Trump begins with the political suicide of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who by error sent compromising shots of himself not to the woman he was flirting with, but to the world. Bannon excitedly describes how Breitbart jumped into the ensuing firestorm. As he likes to repeat, Bannon conceives of politics as war, and his stint as Trump's campaign manager shows how effective he was, making all the right judgment calls to turn a 15- to 20-point loss into victory. His means leave much to be desired. To embarrass the Clintons, he gleefully arranged for four women who accused Bill Clinton of misconduct to be seated in front-row VIP seats during one of the presidential debates. This was to deflect attention from Trump’s own boasts about molesting women in the infamous Access Hollywood tape that had just been made public.
The back-and-forth between interviewer and interviewee has its pregnant moments. One is Morris’ defensive explanation of why he voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries instead of Bernie Sanders. “I thought she was the best hope of defeating Trump and you,” he says to Bannon. “I voted out of fear.”
As the interview continues, the pace picks up, the cascade of news inserts quickens and the music turns more blood-curdling. Morris takes his time discussing the anti-Semitic, white separatist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a right-wing marcher drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and killed a woman. Echoing Trump’s much-criticized comments, Bannon says there were decent people on both sides. The rally precipitated his being booted from the president's coterie of counselors, an event that Morris brilliantly compares to King Henry V’s dismissal of his advisor Falstaff in an excerpt from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. Bannon watches the scene raptly on a split screen, makes the connection to himself and finally concludes it was Falstaff’s dharma to be sent away by the king.
Production companies: Fourth Floor Productions, Maje Productions, Storyteller Productions, Moxie Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Errol Morris
Producers: Errol Morris, Steven Hathaway, Marie Savare, P.J. van Sandwijk, Michael Lesslie, Robert Fernandez
Director of photography: Igor Martinovic
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Editor: Steven Hathaway
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
World sales: Endeavor Content