When American Dharma first premiered in September 2018 — at the Venice Film Festival, and then days later at the Toronto International Film Festival — a question was looming in the air: Was there any acceptable way, at the midpoint of Donald Trump’s first term as president, to hand over the microphone to Steve Bannon?
That question had exploded days earlier, when an interview with the former Breitbart chair and adviser to the president was announced as the centerpiece of the New Yorker Festival in early October. Staffers at the magazine and many members of the media and the public strenuously argued against his inclusion. Prominent figures slated to appear elsewhere at the festival publicly stated that they would not appear on the same bill with him.
Eventually, the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, rescinded Bannon’s invitation, causing heated debates about whether he had spinelessly succumbed to so-called “Twitter outrage” or had come to understand the point of view of those who objected. In response, Bannon released a statement declaring that Remnick had been “gutless when confronted by the howling mob.”
Oddly enough, as the New Yorker controversy was raging, American Dharma was in its first festival screenings. It’s a feature-length documentary that consists almost entirely of an interview with Bannon conducted by documentarian Errol Morris, who sat down for an extended conversation with Bannon about Bannon’s ideological views, interpretation of history, and involvement in the Trump presidency, the alt-right, and the reemergence of militant white nationalism in America.
The result isn’t exactly satisfying; if you go into American Dharma hoping for a systematic and explicit confrontation or dismantling of Bannon’s often-disturbing views, you’ll be disappointed. Morris’s film is less a takedown of its subject, and more a Rorschach test for its viewers, even now: more than two years after Bannon left the White House for good, and then left Breitbart, the far-right website he co-founded in 2007, under a cloud of controversy. What you’ll see is precisely what you’re primed to see — and that, not Bannon’s ideas themselves, is the point.
In American Dharma, Errol Morris continues his examination of the nature of evil
Bannon has never been particularly interested in hiding his views. And Morris has little interest in bringing his audience up to speed with them in the film. Those views were familiar to those watching the far right even before Bannon joined the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016. But after Trump won the presidency and Bannon spent a year as an advisor in the White House, they became much more well-known.
Bannon is often called the architect of Trumpism. And most people who’ve been paying attention have a good enough grasp on what that means.
Morris doesn’t have any particular interest in instructing the audience regarding what’s right or wrong with Trumpism through Bannon as a mouthpiece. Several times he disagrees with Bannon on camera, but never about things that you’d expect — not about white nationalism, for instance, or about the true nature of the events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Instead, he challenges Bannon on whether Greek tragedy is hopeful, or whether Bannon’s views are apocalyptic.
That’s a telling move on Morris’s part, though it will likely infuriate some viewers. American Dharma is not a sparring match. Rather, Morris’s role in the conversation is more that of a scientist examining a virus under a microscope: The goal isn’t to destroy, so much as to observe very, very carefully.
The goal of American Dharma is to let Bannon talk (and talk and talk — “this is a man who loves to talk,” Morris said after the film’s Toronto premiere), relatively unchallenged by his interlocutor. He talks about Trump and about Vietnam. He talks about his filmmaking forays and about the films he loves, which often feature an outsider character who is also a sort of tragic hero: the John Wayne character in various Westerns, Gregory Peck’s tough leader in 12 O’Clock High, Orson Welles’s cast-out father figure Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.
Then there’s the character who Bannon most strongly identifies with in literature: John Milton’s rendering of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, whom some have labeled the first literary anti-hero. “Better to reign in hell ...” Morris begins. Bannon quickly finishes “ ... than serve in heaven,” and laughs, saying that he repeats that quote all the time.
These fictional characters and their stories give the film its structure, as Morris organizes Bannon’s ideas into chapters that are loosely pegged to each one. Morris’s point in doing this is clear: Bannon’s actual ideology is somewhat all over the place, mixing his proclaimed commitment to populism with an affinity for big business interests, some semi-Catholic theology, some white nationalism, a willingness to stoke fear and promote the ideas of those who proclaim white supremacy, and a dash of apocalypticism.
(The film ends on Bannon saying that his goal is a “complete rejection of the system,” which, oddly enough, is an almost word-for-word repetition of the proclamation that Michael Moore makes at the end of his latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9.)
Bannon’s ideas are incoherent, but he strings them together as part of his “dharma”
That none of Bannon’s viewpoints fit together particularly well only makes sense inside the larger framework of “dharma,” a concept from various Eastern religions that Bannon defines as “the combination of duty, fate, and destiny.” He returns to this concept over and over again as a way to explain human instinct, why he advocates for populism and the destruction of social systems, and, most importantly, how he views himself.
Bannon, a lifelong Catholic, is an antihero in his own image, profoundly narcissistic and convinced that his fate is parallel to those of his heroes from the movies and from Milton: He self-identifies as a tragic figure tasked by some force, God or the universe or something like it, with tearing apart the modern world and handing power back to the ordinary, common man. But his job isn’t to be the leader — it is to be, in a way, the puppetmaster.
As he has in the past, Bannon speaks of his former boss as more or less a shell into which he could pour his own ideologies. In Bannon’s worldview, other people are not humans with dignity made in the image of God, but instruments for the furtherance of his own “dharma.” In theological terms, Bannon seems to abandon the Catholic narrative of world history after the fall of man, swapping out the idea of redemption for a darker, more deterministic understanding of fate and destiny.
So it’s no problem to Bannon if people personally dislike him; as long as he fulfills his own self-mythology in the end, that’s what matters. (Hearing him talk about wanting to weaponize the comments section of Breitbart is especially illuminating.)
And if that makes people think he’s evil, well, who cares? As Bannon told France’s far-right National Front at the party’s annual congress in March, “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” Having your views sharply criticized for the way they denigrate human dignity? In Bannon’s eyes, that means you’ve won.
Evil like this is a preoccupation of Morris’s. In movies like The Fog of War, Mr. Death, The Unknown Known, and Standard Operating Procedure, he’s studied figures known for warmongering, lying, denying the Holocaust, and participating in the hideous torture of other humans and tried to interrogate where their impulses come from.
In some ways, it’s difficult not to see Morris’s interests as a theological quest; after all, the term “evil” itself is freighted with religious implications. At American Dharma’s premiere, Morris labeled the film a “horror movie,” noting that he has long been “fascinated by evil characters, by what makes evil characters, by the nature of evil.”
Morris is no fan of religion itself; he’s called himself a “secular anti-humanist,” saying that “religion is nasty and so is mankind.” But his mission to figure out what makes people do evil things is at heart an inquiry into the nature of a force that feels mysterious and irrational, quite separate from mankind and yet embedded in all human interactions. For Morris, evil is less an incarnate thing and more something we become when we engage in evil action.
Nor does Morris have any particularly interest in telling the audience how to think about those views. He assumes, off the bat, that the audience for American Dharma either already agrees with Bannon (though this is probably not much of the audience for an Errol Morris documentary) or finds him reprehensible. Instead of arguing with Bannon during their interview, he makes most of his argument through his filmmaking, through making the kind of movie Bannon himself would likely love when seen through his own morally self-distorted lens.
American Dharma isn’t a dismantling of Bannon’s ideologies. It’s a portrait of delusion.
What American Dharma offers is an unfiltered view of Steve Bannon — Bannon as he sees himself. You can see, in a way, the version of Bannon that has entranced some people into thinking of him as an intellectual, a conservative ideologue, or as a force for positive change. He draws on historical metaphors and philosophical ideas and cultural bromides, stringing them together in forceful sentences that seem smart and invigorating, until you start to poke at them.
Bannon is also talented at sidestepping the truth, and unlike some of his former colleagues, he’s not clumsy (like former White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer) or plainly obvious (like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway) about it. When Morris asks him about Charlottesville, he responds by talking about how various reasonable people have differing views on Confederate monuments — which, yes, differing views on Confederate monuments were part of what happened, though hardly the most important point.
Morris’s move, as a filmmaker, is not to confront Bannon directly, but to undercut Bannon’s half-truths with the tools available to him. So Bannon’s discussion of Charlottesville is couched in the now-familiar images of young white men marching with tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” as well as the footage of a car plowing through a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing one woman, Heather Heyer. Morris uses this technique multiple times throughout the film, as we hear Bannon’s voice saying one thing while looking at a barrage of headlines and images that expose the lie.
The effect isn’t a point-by-point refutation of Bannon’s ideas themselves. Instead, American Dharma is more of a character study in the soul-corroding effects of extreme self-regard. Morris illustrates how auto-delusion can turn a man who obviously had great potential to make good into someone who doesn’t see, for instance, any conflict between the populism he proclaims and the man he actually helped install in the White House to enact it.
The metaphysical gymnastics required to become Steve Bannon have little to do with any commitment to a set of ideas, and a lot to do with making oneself a figure about whom a movie could be made. If that requires burning down the world, well, then, so be it.
Which is probably why he became the architect of Trumpism, a set of incoherent ideologies designed mostly to help insecure men without anything in their moral center achieve greatness in their own eyes.
Ultimately, Morris is a portrait artist who lets Bannon paint much of his own portrait. The imagery he uses is both warlike and apocalyptic. American Dharma could be interpreted as a chronicle of Bannon’s heroics, and no doubt Bannon and those who admire him may find it to be just that. If your moral core is the destruction of your enemies, then there’s nothing to lose by being the destroyer.
But in Morris’s hands, the subject of American Dharma is no destroyer. He’s a farce. He is, by the end, rendered nearly pitiable: a deluded figure with fantasies of grandeur and little substance beneath the grandiose clichés — a grown man, desperately play-acting at being the tragic hero he saw in the movies.
American Dharma opened in limited theaters on November 1.