After the first screening of Errol Morris’ American Dharma at the Toronto International Film Festival, a woman in the audience asked whether Morris had ever considered including other voices, especially female ones, in his documentary portrait of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. “Well,” Morris responded, “Have you seen any of my other films?”
These are, as it turns out, both good questions. Morris has become a specialist in a form of documentary that amounts to an extended monologue, transforming the talking-head interview into something like a spiritual X-ray, so the idea that he would break with that format for the purpose of offering rebuttal witnesses is a modestly bizarre one (and it is worth noting that, while most of the subjects who have fascinated him are men, two of his most recent movies, The B-Side and Tabloid, focus on female protagonists). But there’s a particular danger in letting a figure like Bannon put forth his rancid ideology unchecked. It’s one thing to let Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld attempt to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War or the George W. Bush administration after the fact, if that it is how you are inclined to see Morris’ The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, and another to give Bannon a platform to whitewash the white-supremacist foundations of the movement that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
One of the first reviews of American Dharma labeled it a “toothless bromance,” but Morris doesn’t seem nearly as beguiled by Bannon as he was by McNamara or Rumsfeld. Abandoning his custom-made Interrotron, a contraption that fosters intimacy by allowing interview subjects to look directly into the camera lens, Morris sticks with the multicamera style of his mixed-media Wormwood and situates Bannon in a highly artificial environment, a replica of the Quonset hut from Twelve O’Clock High, a 1949 movie about World War II bombardiers. (The production design is by Wes Anderson regular Adam Stockhausen.) Movies play a large part in American Dharma, not least Morris’ own: Bannon credits a 2003 screening of The Fog of War at the Telluride Film Festival as a key moment in his shift from occasionally producing films to making them himself, and it was after a screening of Bannon’s Ronald Reagan documentary In the Face of Evil that he was first bear-hugged by Andrew Breitbart. Querying Bannon on his taste in film would seem to be extremely far down on the list of potential questions, a few steps above “What’s your favorite color” and well below “Do you view nonwhite people as an existential threat to the future of the United States?” But as he did with Donald Trump and Citizen Kane, Morris uses movies as a window into a mindset profoundly shaped by them, at a degree of remove that allows his subject to at least slightly let down his guard.
It comes as no surprise that many of Bannon’s favorites, or at least the ones he and Morris discuss at greatest length, are war movies and Westerns: The Bridge on the River Kwai, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers. It’s not clear whether, in Bannon’s mind, the Western’s imagined struggle between indigenous savagery and the civilizing white man ever ended, but he certainly believes it’s back on now, even if he has grown too cagey to say it outright. Even when Morris confronts him outright with the racism of the Trump administration, Bannon doesn’t rise to the bait, ceding the credit to Stephen Miller and quarreling with Morris primarily over terminology. (It’s still “extreme vetting” as far as he’s concerned.) It’s clear that some of American Dharma’s critics would have preferred a more overtly confrontational version of the film, in which Morris pins Bannon to the wall or drags him more forcefully through the mud, but it’s not clear what that hoped-for film would actually accomplish. The roots of Bannon’s ideology have already been exposed, the fissures in his worldview cracked wide open, and it hasn’t dimmed its appeal to many Americans. It would be lovely to think there’s a documentary that could expose Trumpism as a fraud, that could pull the scales from his most devout supporters’ eyes and show them how he’s played them for suckers, but you can’t fault Morris for falling short of an impossible goal.
If American Dharma has a central irony, it’s that Bannon touts himself as a “rationalist” while proving he’s anything but. He rages against the elites while backing a pure product of the system he says he wants to destroy, and he preaches the ascent of the working class while refusing to see, or at least admit, the Trump administration’s naked giveaways to corporate interests. At times, he sounds like the leftists he so frequently decries, especially in his broad contempt for the political establishment: The most uncomfortable moment between Bannon and Morris is not when Morris accuses him of racism but when Morris admits he didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders. (Morris explains his choice by saying, “I was afraid of you guys.”)
American Dharma’s shakiest gambit is portraying Bannon as he sees himself, striding in weighty slow motion like the heroes of his favorite movies, but it also becomes clear that his self-image, like his ideology, is highly provisional. Sometimes he’s Milton’s Lucifer, completing Morris’ citation of “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Sometimes he’s Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, who in Bannon’s view is a heroic figure who accepts his destiny to be cast out for the good of the kingdom, rather than a wise fool betrayed by the ruler he has faithfully served. (Morris seems as aghast at Bannon’s misreading of Shakespeare as at his insistence that American neo-Nazis are a negligible force only given power by the mainstream media.)
Of all Morris’ first-person documentaries, American Dharma is the closest to feeling like a two-hander. There are stretches when Bannon asks the questions and Morris is the one answering them. But the camera stays on Bannon, and what we see is a man who reveals himself even as he thinks he’s gaining the upper hand. Morris challenges him head-on, but he also uses a cascade of internet headlines and tweets to fill in narrative details and underline the moments when Bannon’s version of history departs most forcefully from the facts. The mocked-up desktop interface via which Morris imports them makes it feel like the movie is fact-checking itself in real time. Although Morris introduced American Dharma as a film about “evil,” it indicts its subject by implication rather than with blunt force. Though it’s doubtful any of Bannon’s supporters would watch it—for one thing, it has yet to secure theatrical distribution—it’s conceivable they could come away nodding their heads in agreement rather than being shaken to their core. Morris isn’t as didactic a filmmaker as Michael Moore. He expects that his audience will be as smart as he is, and it’s fair to argue that is a risk not worth taking. But there’s a striking similarity in how American Dharma and Fahrenheit 11/9 end, with the confident prediction that a revolution is coming, if it is not already here. Moore and Bannon are talking about opposite insurgencies, but they both see a country on the verge of explosion. Moore wants to light a match, and Morris wants to snuff one out.