How American Dharma succumbs to the ugly seduction of Stephen Bannon
No one understands the elaborate craft of self-deception better than director Errol Morris. Over the decades since he made The Thin Blue Line in 1988, the documentary filmmaker has relentlessly explored the lies people tell themselves to sleep better at night, oftentimes through single-interview films that expose their subject's chilling awareness about their roles in some of the most monstrous American acts of the 20th and 21st centuries. In The Fog of War, this is done by holding the camera a moment too long on Robert McNamara after he ponders committing war crimes. In The Unknown Known, he bursts out "oh, come on" when Donald Rumsfeld tries to spin himself out of accountability with yet another ambiguous aphorism.
Morris' latest film, American Dharma, also seeks to expose delusions, this time of Breitbart co-founder and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. Unfortunately, by giving Bannon the rope to hang himself, Morris also leaves him enough rein to get away.
Even before anyone had seen it, American Dharma was the subject of heavy criticism — after all, do we really need to give Bannon yet another soapbox from which to spout his self-described "apocalyptic rationality"? Unlike President Trump, whose faculty for measured calculation is dubious, Bannon has proven himself to be a savvy manipulator of journalists. "The medium is the message," he knowingly informs Morris at one point in the film, quoting philosopher Marshall McLuhan to explain how the Trump campaign utilized the media. The New Yorker festival's recent decision to name Bannon, briefly, as a headliner (public opinion quickly got him removed) wasn't alarming because it gave him a platform for his abhorrent rhetoric, but because it seemed to recognized him as the serious intellectual he longs to be seen as.
American Dharma, too, offers Bannon the legitimacy he craves — which is surely the only reasonable explanation for why he agreed to roughly 16 hours of interviews with Morris.
In recent years, Morris has preferred subtlety to the more heavy-handed documentary activism of The Thin Blue Line, a tactic that fails him in practice in American Dharma. The film's most effective moments come from the juxtapositions that underscore Bannon's contradictions; when Bannon insists "reasonable people can disagree" about Confederate monuments, for example, Morris inserts footage of white nationalists in Charlottesville shouting "white lives matter" and "Jews will not replace us."
But while this strategy worked when profiling men reflecting on their legacies — Rumsfeld is undercut in The Unknown Known, for example, by his own lingering smile after appalling pronouncements — Bannon has no perspective for self-reflection, and no interest in admitting wrongdoing. He was apparently so at-ease during the filmmaking that he told The Daily Beast that Dharma "never gave me the impression of being this gotcha film."
He's right. Rather, American Dharma is a frustrating excavation of a man at the height of his narcissism. To that end, Morris is complicit, with Dharma structured around Bannon's hero-worship of classic film characters. Morris even recreates the set of Twelve O'Clock High as the space in which he interviews Bannon, with the ex-Breitbart chief admitting to identifying with Gregory Peck. The result, aided by Paul Leonard-Morgan's rousing score, is to dramatize — even romanticize — Bannon's place in history, and his personal "war" against the rest of the world. Throughout American Dharma's hour-and-a-half runtime, Bannon additionally cites The Searchers, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, Chimes at Midnight, My Darling Clementine, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Morris, who has previously underscored the irony of Trump's favorite film being Citizen Kane, is no doubt aware of Bannon's willful misreading of these films — to his credit, he challenges Bannon's assertion that Greek tragedies are "hopeful," and disagrees on numerous occasions with his interpretations of scenes in films like Chimes at Midnight. That is, unfortunately, not enough to tear down Bannon's own heroic portrait of himself. While Morris relies on Bannon being an inherently appalling character to audiences, the fact of the matter is that he is a beloved figure of the alt-right, and the mastermind of a movement so attractive to many that it ultimately put a man in the White House.
Bannon retains this control of his image. At one point, knocking a metal file off a desk when pounding his hands on the table, he breaks from his train of thought to admire, "that's a good effect." Although Morris is the author of American Dharma — which is made obvious by effects ranging from the insertion of headlines contradicting Bannon to heavy-handed visual metaphors, including a burning American flag — you still can never quite get a solid grasp on how much Bannon is posturing, because Morris characteristically puts the impetus on the audience to decide what to buy into, and what to write off.
American Dharma ultimately fails to elicit the same revealing self-awareness from Bannon that Morris got from his previous subjects, perhaps due to Morris' mistake in assuming Bannon is deceiving himself at all. The thing about exposing delusion is that a subject has to, in some deep part of himself, have a seed of doubt that he has indeed done the right thing. In railing about a coming revolution, Bannon's self-doubts aren't exposed — his nauseating convictions are.
By failing to intervene in Bannon's myth-making in any significant way, Morris' film becomes a project not unlike a recorded Trump rally or Kellyanne Conway interview: historically valuable as a primary source, perhaps, but also one that lets its subject skitter away mostly unchallenged.
"When the legend becomes more powerful, print the legend," Bannon says at one point, paraphrasing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's famous line. And Morris, for better or worse, has heeded his words.