TIFF Review: ‘American Dharma’

Is it time to take Steve Bannon seriously?

5 mins read

American Dharma
(UK/US, 100 min.)
Dir. Errol Morris
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American premiere)

“Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” That’s what newly elected president Obama told Eric Cantor in the early days of his presidency during debates about the stimulus package that Democrats hoped would end the financial crisis. It’s also, in a very different way, the rationale for Errol Morris’s new documentary American Dharma, about ex-Breitbart boss, Trump strategist and populist crusader Steve Bannon. Whatever you may think of him—and if you’re reading this, I think I know exactly what you think of him, and probably what you think of Morris giving him a platform—the fact is that he won, even in some ways more than Trump did, and that means something. We would all do well to figure out just exactly what that something is.

Many have pointed out that American Dharma fits nicely alongside Morris’s portraits of Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War (2003) and Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (2013), forming a sort of trilogy on a particularly American banality of evil. One might even throw Standard Operating Procedure (2008) and Mr. Death (1999) in there as well, although stylistically the film is pitched much closer to last year’s Netflix docudrama Wormwood.

Unfortunately, the film largely belies that impressive investigative resume; at important moments, Bannon gets the better of Morris. In a sign of the times, Bannon simply stonewalls on the few occasions when Morris really tries to grill him, aping, to my eyes anyway, Mitch McConnell’s infamous refusals to answer questions he doesn’t like, as well as the tried-and-true techniques of Internet trolls who attack and provoke and then refuse to answer the bell. Morris often ends up filling the silence himself, working around to something that Bannon can twist back to his own talking points instead of letting the tension stand.

Morris is more successful in getting Bannon to hold forth on his favourite films — American Dharma’s gimmick — including My Darling ClementineThe Bridge Over The River KwaiTwelve O’Clock High and Chimes At Midnight, and the idea of dharma Bannon finds in them. In revealing the melodramatic inner workings of Bannon’s psyche, there’s some value to this approach. The problem is that Bannon matters too much to leave it at that. He masterminded a revolution-in-all-but-name. He needs to be taken seriously not just as a person but as a political force.

Up to a point, Bannon’s grandstanding is actually pretty insightful—he won, after all, when nobody thought he would or could—and as long as he’s talking about all the ways in which the political and financial establishment is out of touch and how people are alienated and impoverished and angry, and discoursing on the new roles that media and technology play in people’s lives, I’m right there with him. Bernie Sanders would’ve said the same things. It’s in his disingenuousness in denying the blatantly racist and xenophobic roots of his political beliefs and in his refusal to recognize the ways in which he, Trump and all their cronies just are the very establishment that they rail against that, of course, he loses me. Though he tries, Morris ultimately fails to pull the curtain back on Bannon’s trick, the weird alchemy that transmutes a fundamentally leftist critique of power and government into far-right ideology.

It’s too bad, because on the evidence, Bannon’s no fool—a cynical nihilist who only believes in power, sure, but no fool. I am genuinely curious about the way Bannon and his ilk rationalize their ideology, because it in no way follows from their reasoning. He really ought to be a revolutionary socialist—he even apparently considers himself a Leninist. Morris has said that he brooked no hope that he would make Bannon crack or recognize the error of his ways, but that’s not really what’s missing here. The question is an intellectual one.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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