Film Reviews

American Dharma

Published November 13, 2020
Steve Bannon, the real Heart of Darkness

Steve Bannon is not stupid, he can even be charming, but he is not the kind of guy you’d like to see loitering-with-intent in the corridors of power. In American Dharma, Errol Morris brings us an extended interview with the man Time magazine called “the Great Manipulator”, interspersed with excerpts from Bannon’s favourite films.

Morris, generally acknowledged as America’s premier documentarian, is known for his political interviews,  notably with former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, in The Fog of War (2003), and a later holder of that title, Donald Rumsfeld, in The Unknown Known (2013).

McNamara and Rumsfeld were both career politicians, accustomed to the norms and conventions of Washington D.C. Bannon is a very different proposition: a professional trouble-maker with a bleak philosophy of life and a grudge against the world. He is credited with the strategy that propelled a consummate anti-politician, Donald Trump, into the highest office in the land. We all know what happened next.

American Dharma was released at the end of 2019. Since then Steve Bannon has been indicted on charges of fraud and money laundering after allegedly swindling a group of Trump fans who made donations to his We Build the Wall fundraising campaign. While awaiting trial he used a webcast to call for the beheading of infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, and FBI Director, Christopher Wray, because of their disobedience to Trump. This earned him a permanent ban from Facebook and YouTube, while the lawyer representing him in the fraud case has quit.

There’s currently much speculation as to whether Trump will issue a pardon for Bannon during the ‘lame duck’ period of his presidency.

Because Bannon is still a political force, even after being ousted from his role as Trump’s Chief Strategist in August 2017, this made Morris’s task a lot harder than it was with McNamara or Rumsfeld, who could reminisce freely about the past. After leaving the White House Bannon returned to his executive position at Breitbart News then embarked on a career as a roving populist, travelling around Europe enouraging the extreme right in every country. His aim was to create a world-wide network of populist parties, although he was largely unsuccesful.

Before becoming a political activist Bannon had been an investment banker and a film producer. In 2004 he made a documentary about the Reagan era called In the Face of Evil, which won the admiration of right-wing publisher, Andrew Breitbart. Bannon became a founding member of Breitbart News and took over as Chief Executive after the owner’s death in 2012. By this stage he was the complete political animal who would rise to the heights when he tied his fortunes to the 2016 Trump electoral campaign.

Morris uses Bannon’s love of movies as an elaborate way of getting him to discuss his political views. It’s alarming though not surprising to learn that Bannon’s favourite film is Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949), a war drama in which Gregory Peck plays General Frank Savage, a hard-bitten commander who turns a demoralised group of airmen into a crack force. The interview is staged in a facsimile of the Quonset hut in which Peck does his stuff.

As the interview proceeds we see excerpts from other films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), My Darling Clementine (1946), Paths of Glory (1957) and Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965).  It all adds up to a psychological portrait of the political extremist as film buff. We’re invited to consider what Bannon got out of these movies, and wonder what ideological messages they sent to entire generations of movie-goers.

Bannon views life as a permanent state of warfare in which a lone hero does whatever it takes to achieve victory. “This is war. It’s absolutely war,” he says. There’s no room for the finer emotions, it’s an all-or-nothing contest in which anything or anybody may be sacrificed.

Bannon’s idea of dharma is a “combination of duty, fate, and destiny”, which might be read as emphasis rather than tautology. It plays into an apocalyptic fantasy of revolution, of blood in the streets. “We’re going to have a revolution in this country,” he prophesies, “as night follows day.”

Morris has copped a good deal of criticism for not being tougher on Bannon, and it’s true he aestheticises this interview to an unusual degree. Whenever he backs his subject into a corner he seems to quietly let him out again, while Bannon is allowed to boast about his strategic victories.

But Bannon’s vanity and compulsive self-mythologisation only make this portrait more compelling. Unlike Trump, the puppet-tyrant he helped elevate to national leadership, Bannon is culturally-literate to a impressive degree. It’s his interpretations that should raise eyebrows, particularly the idea that there is something “hopeful” about Greek tragedy, or that Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Chimes After Midnight represents the natural order of things.

It’s commonly believed culture is a civilising influence but Bannon is the living refutation of that idea. He is a wrecker who despises “the permanent political class”, and dreams of a great popular uprising that tears down existing systems of government, business and other institutions. The insular, uneducated, impoverished working classes are praised as the force that will bring this about. It’s destruction for the sake of destruction, with no alternative blueprint apart from a reign of violence and terror. It’s clear he relishes this scenario, as a gourmet might relish a rare dish.

The apparent contradiction in Bannon’s world view is that he – an obvious member of an élite – should somehow rise above the strictures he places on others. This is presumably because he considers himself a Nietzschean superman, beyond good and evil.

Bannon poses as a warrior, but he is no Frank Savage. He could be more credibly defined as an intellectual, albeit a severely twisted one, or in cinematic terms – a Bond villain. His unabashed support of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views, his opposition to environmentalists, his promotion of every form of blind nationalism are all portrayed as tactical decisions. These extreme positions are tools used to mobilise the fear and anger of the masses.

It’s his reasons that remain mysterious. While Trump is a malignant narcissist who inhabits his own version of reality, Bannon is a more subtle proposition. When Morris says, “I think you’re crazy”, it’s an admission of failure in trying to fathom the way Bannon’s mind works. At one moment Bannon sounds like Lenin, in the next he is singing the praises of the Reagan era. In this interview the apparent contradictions are constantly being raised and papered over.

Bannon will be savouring the moment as Trump refuses to acknowledge his defeat in the election and mobilises the anger of his ‘base’. We now have a clear understanding of the prodigious size of that base and their fierce, unwavering loyalty to their leader. How far could it go? How bad could it get? One imagines Bannon like the Marquis de Sade, sitting in a prison cell, waiting to be liberated by the revolutionary mobs.



American Dharma

Written & directed by Errol Morris

Starring Steve Bannon, Errol Morris

USA/UK, rated M, 95 mins



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Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 November, 2020