TIFF18: American Dharma

Steve Bannon American Dharma.jpg

American Dharma is important viewing for anyone wanting to better understand the maelstrom of global politics since 2015, when Donald J. Trump announced his run for Presidency of the United States of America. In the film, Errol Morris, one of the great American documentarians, interviews Steve Bannon, one of the key architects of the ascendancy of Trump and the populist right in the US more generally. While the film is structured as an interview, it is neither a conventional talking-heads documentary, nor a TV news-style interview, with hot button questions, truncated answers, and tit-for-tat bickering. Morris’s approach is not so much to draw out details and inconsistencies in order to nail Bannon, nor is the film primarily informational, simply trying to ascertain important facts and tell a history. With the accompaniment of referential and lyrical imagery, as well as some archival and media clips, Morris’s line of questioning encourages Bannon to paint a portrait of himself for the viewer. It is ultimately Bannon’s self-representation that is the most revealing aspect of American Dharma, and it provides insight into aspects of Bannon the ideologue as well as Bannon the man.

Morris’s Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War (2003), about Robert McNamara, one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War, reveals its subject to be neither a cartoonish villain nor a misunderstood tragic hero, but rather a complex, intelligent, yet flawed human being who made miscalculations and mistakes. While The Fog of War has the advantage of greater distance from its events, thereby facilitating greater insight—and some genuine change in the mind of its subject—American Dharma nonetheless offers some clarifying moments about Bannon. The film likely won’t change your mind about Bannon (and he doesn’t change his), but it will help you to understand what drives him and his political agenda. By letting Bannon talk at length about what he believes, what motivates him both personally and politically, and what his vision of America is and how it should be fixed, the film reveals Bannon’s conception of himself as an apocalyptic figure, which should alert us to the stakes of the game Bannon thinks he’s playing. At one point, Bannon talks of using Trump as a blunt force instrument in his “war” for the working people of America against what he defines as the engineering/managerial/administrative globalist class that dominates the world.

Their conversation is at turns informative, meditative, and confrontational. There are a couple incredible moments of tension between interviewer and interviewee. Early on in the film, Morris tells Bannon he sees a “Good Bannon” and “Bad Bannon.” As he describes “Bad Bannon,” the camera remains on Bannon as he continuously rubs his bottom lip. He’s clearly listening intently and is unnerved. Another great exchange—and there are others—is when Bannon, who is a filmmaker himself and an admirer of Morris’s documentaries, is confounded when Morris says he voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries instead of Bernie Sanders. Bannon can’t believe it and somewhat angrily demands to know why. Morris tells him bluntly (to paraphrase his words): “I was afraid—of Trump, and of you, and what you both represent. I thought she would have a better chance of beating Trump.” Bannon looks like he is really listening, but with visible tension and frustration on his face, that someone he admires doesn’t share his vision of the real problems facing America.

American Dharma is structured as an interview on a constructed set accompanied by atmospheric imagery and archival footage. There is not a great deal of archival footage, although we get replays of some key events from the news as well as various tweets, screen caps, and YouTube videos. But Morris is less interested in assembling and laying out a biography of Bannon or a recap of Election 2016, and more on teasing out the philosophy, motivations, and ideas that undergird Bannon’s methods of cultural war and insurgent populism.

One such concept is “dharma,” which Bannon defines early on in the film as the intertwining of duty, fate, and destiny. “Dharma,” of course, is a word and concept with origins in Hinduism and Buddhism. By picking up on Bannon’s use of the word, and modifying it with the adjective “American” for his film’s title, Morris dangles before his audience an intriguing paradox in Bannon, who describes his life using a term from Eastern philosophy, yet has a political agenda characterized by its emphasis on restricted immigration and economic nationalism.  

The most formally and thematically intriguing aspect of American Dharma, however, is the film’s engagement with other films. Throughout, Morris and Bannon watch clips from and discuss several key films that have contributed to Bannon’s character and intellectual development. The most important is Twelve O’Clock High (1949), starring Gregory Peck, about American aircrews flying bombing missions over Europe in WWII. In fact, the main set where Morris and Bannon have their conversation is a replication of the hanger/office from that movie. We also see images of Bannon walking on a few other set recreations from that movie, such as an airfield. Morris shows clips from a few John Ford Westerns, namely The Searchers (1956) and My Darling Clementine (1946), which depict the kind of old-school American men-of-action that Bannon styles himself as. We also watch a scene from Orson Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight (1965), when Prince Hal becomes king and abandons Falstaff, his knavish friend and mentor. Morris is clearly interested in how Bannon reads this scene in light of Trump dismissing Bannon from the White House in 2017. It’s a fascinating point of intersection between art and life. Bannon’s reading of that scene is likely not what you’d expect.

These moments of personal reflection-meets-film criticism are fascinating, and, in my estimation, they wonderfully contribute to this gripping work of political criticism (in the sense of analysis and investigation, not simply disapproval; although it is eminently clear that Morris disagrees with Bannon, if that needs to be said). One important theme in American Dharma is that media define the narratives we tell ourselves, whether through the old films we admire and use as ideals or the news media we consume and comment on.

Anyone expecting Morris to simply grill Bannon or to try to win the war of ideas for the #Resistance are looking for the wrong thing in American Dharma. Hate him or love him, Bannon has been a significant figure in American politics and culture—and continues to be in Europe amongst the far-right populist parties—and so listening to Bannon describe his political philosophy and some of his life events and motivations is useful, even if one wants to fight and oppose what Bannon stands for. In the long shadow of 2016, efforts at clarification should be welcome.

9 out of 10

American Dharma (2018, USA)

Directed by Errol Morris.