How do you make a critical documentary about someone who'll do anything for publicity?
Errol Morris, a strong contender for the title of Greatest Living Documentary Filmmaker, has spent a career interviewing tricky subjects. His latest film can be seen as the third part of a loose trilogy profiling divisive political figures: Robert S. McNamara in the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, Donald Rumsfeld in the underseen masterpiece The Unknown Known, and now Steve Bannon in American Dharma. But while Fog was about its subject's frankness, and Unknown Known was about a game of rhetorical chess between subject and interviewer, Dharma is about the former Trump advisor running roughshod over a filmmaker who should know better.
It's important that films like American Dharma get made. Knowing your enemy - and Morris openly states that Bannon is an enemy, describing Dharma as "kind of a horror movie" - is half the battle. Like its spiritual predecessors, the movie centres around a single interview, in which Morris tries to get to the heart of his subject's delusional philosophies. Unfortunately, given Bannon's canny understanding of mass-media manipulation, those philosophies end up dominating Morris' own.
Throughout the film, Bannon is visibly performing - for the camera, for the audience, and even for Morris - and it's chilling to observe just how much he relishes the opportunity to spout his nationalist rhetoric. Bannon is an articulate speaker, inasmuch as he can conceal his awful ideas behind just enough of a veneer as to make them seem palatable and even faux-deep. Dodging questions and verbally jabbing at Morris, he controls the rhetorical playing field at almost all times, smugly championing the importance of American citizenship and calling for the dismantling of government. Is Morris just allowing him to do this?
Morris clearly wants to editorialise - seated across a table from Bannon, he's far more present than in his “Interrotron” docs - but the way he presents his disbelief and revulsion leaves him open to exploitation. Rather than coming in with direct criticism, Morris instead seeks to understand Bannon, to mentally grasp how his unempathetic nationalism works. Accordingly, Morris plaintively and repeatedly asks “but why,” giving Bannon a window to explain his reasoning unchallenged. Morris engages in good faith with someone who doesn't respond in kind, and it's cringe-inducing to watch.
The one time Morris actually spars with Bannon is over the disconnect between his ostensible championing of “the little guy,” and his actual policies, which benefit almost exclusively corporations and the rich. This divide between the “good Bannon and bad Bannon” is central to Morris’ perplexed curiosity, but he engages with it as if Bannon's words mean as much as his actions. Naturally, that just allows Bannon to use more words to smooth over those actions. It's dispiriting to see a master filmmaker and interviewer so out-manoeuvred like this.
A significant part of the interview concerns Bannon's favourite films. It's an interesting avenue to explore - one Morris has used with Trump himself - as personal preferences in and readings of films say a lot about inner lives. Bannon's selections - largely war films and Westerns like Twelve O’Clock High, Chimes At Midnight, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and The Bridge on the River Kwai - stress national duty, defense against outsiders, and tragic heroes stepping up to do the unpleasant things that need to be done. Not particularly surprising, but intriguing nonetheless. This discussion also leads to the concept referenced in the title, which Bannon describes as a mixture of duty, fate, and destiny. It is simply written that America will dominate the globe, Bannon believes. And so it must.
Curiously, another film mentioned is The Fog of War itself, which Bannon credits with his own interest in filmmaking. Confronted with potentially having helped make this monster, Morris seems nervous. In his filmmaking, he frames Bannon negatively, with imposing camera work and apocalyptic visual motifs, and anyone sympathetic to the filmmaker's intentions will read the film in that way. But scary and apocalyptic is how Bannon wants to be seen. Those are positive traits to his base, which like him would love to see the government burned to the ground.
American Dharma is a baffling misstep from Errol Morris, who somehow allowed his directorial and editorial intentions to be subsumed by his subject's agenda. Where he should be challenging Bannon, he gives him a platform - and the tacit endorsement of a beloved director. The alt-right is going to love this movie, just as Christian evangelicals love films like Jesus Camp, or neo-Nazis love American History X - but there's even less commentary here than in those films.
Perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps Morris had a duty to merely document, giving Bannon enough rope to hang himself with; perhaps he wants to expose Bannon's attempts at persuasion. But just as pussy-grabbing tapes only endeared Trump to his base, so too will Bannon's discussion of American carnage rile up his. In this day and age, a firmer hand must be used against such ideas.
I expect a lot from Errol Morris movies. What I never expected was that he'd make something I'd describe as naive.