'American Dharma' Review: Errol Morris Takes On Steve Bannon In His Newest Documentary [NYFF]

There's a sense among some liberal-minded thinkers than Steve Bannon and the alt-right should never be given any kind of platform. The theory holds that starving them of any media oxygen will serve to relegate them back to the fringe status they once occupied. A similar idea, though with significant complications, drove the public outcry that toppled Bannon as the headliner of The New Yorker Festival.

Documentarian Errol Morris, no stranger to confronting powerfully bellicose men, calls BS on this theory in his latest documentary, American Dharma. He recognizes the danger in ignoring or downplaying figures like Bannon, knowing that the disdain only feeds their theory of victimization and increases their power. Like he did with Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, Morris engages his subject in a dialogue about their controversial work and beliefs. As the saying goes, give a man enough rope, and he'll hang himself.

As retrograde as many of his views are, Bannon is hardly a stupid person and dodges all the obvious traps. While his reputation as a "great manipulator" or master strategist are up for debate, the Harvard Business School graduate and former Naval Cadet can certainly talk a big game. The revelation of Morris' film is just that – Bannon can talk and talk and talk without saying much at all. If you can listen to his bloviation for that long, the cleverly disguised evasions and regurgitated talking points become obvious. By around the third time Bannon refers to Trump as "the agent of change" or "a blunt force instrument," his monikers of choice for the president, Morris really ought to have passed a thesaurus across the table.

Bannon's bluster does not go unchallenged. Morris gets more vocal and more present in American Dharma than he usually does in his interrogations, even going so far as to openly admit to Bannon that he finds him scary. Not that the great Errol Morris ever lets himself get steamrolled by a subject, but the pushback and verbal volleying with Bannon takes on both a real urgency and aggressiveness. The resulting intensity allows the documentarian to expose the contradictions of Bannon's sham populism, which is really just ethno-nationalism wrapping itself in a few folksy slogans. When pressed on the inconsistencies in his ideology, Bannon is notably rendered silent. His inability to answer for the ways Trumpism benefits the very elite interests they campaigned against speaks louder than any of Bannon's dialogue.

Morris uncovers that Bannon is less a political mastermind and more of a mythologizer. While the film's editing makes the chronology of their conversation a little unclear, Morris finds an entry point for his subject through discussing the films that shaped his ethos. (The documentarian did something similar with Trump himself back in 2002, exposing his ironically shallow grasp of the lesson in Citizen Kane – "get yourself a good woman.") Bannon possesses a keen understanding of how people relate to larger-than-life figures from working as a film producer as well as an early cryptocurrency pioneer.

But throughout American Dharma, Morris pulls back the curtain on the delusions driving the way his subject projects himself onto popular culture. Through extensive dialogue around the seminal movies in Bannon's life, Morris discovers time and again how a warped ideology can graft itself onto heroic narratives in order to convince itself of its own good and necessity. He effectively translates this into visual terms as well, filming Bannon in tattered sets that resemble the films he discusses like Twelve O'Clock High and My Darling Clementine.

This has the effect of painting Bannon as a man trapped inside the grandiosity of his self-spun folklore. Not to excuse him, but at least to explain him. Except now, Morris reminds us, his mythology is now at least some part ours as well – something we must acknowledge and attempt to understand if we are to ever escape from its chokehold.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10