American Dharma (2018) by Errol Morris
Review by Andrew Swafford
In our final TIFF podcast diary, I spent probably-too-much time waffling on about the controversy surrounding American Dharma, Errol Morris’s portrait of alt-right political mover Steve Bannon. Should or shouldn’t it exist? Can a depiction of fascist ideology ever be truly subversive or can’t it? Should Morris have been tougher on Bannon or not? These are all questions I can’t answer with certainty. So I’ll cut to the chase: I thought American Dharma was powerful and nerve-rattling. I think people should see it.
The key to the film, for me, was in Morris’s intro, when he described the film as “a horror movie.” He wasn’t wrong: I felt on edge constantly while watching American Dharma. There’s something intimidating and unsettling about looking up at a gigantic projection of Bannon, confident and calculated and not obviously malicious. Morris photographs him from a slight distance, never quite looking the man in the eye with his camera as he did in his earlier documentaries about disgraced right-wingers, The Fog of War (Robert McNamara) and The Unknown Known (Donald Rumsfeld). The setting, however, seems to be the inside of Bannon’s head: a reconstruction of a military outpost from 12 O’Clock High, one of Bannon’s favorite films and a subject of much discussion throughout American Dharma. Bannon explains his role as Breitbart chairman and Trump strategist like a warlord explaining how to conduct a coup: it is less concerned with ethics and moreso with efficacy.
Bannon understands our distractible, weaponizable media landscape intimately, a fact most apparent when he discusses the oft-untapped voting potential of toxic comment sections and widespread fodder-for-radicalization to be found on MMORPG forums. Bannon views politics not as a public servant, but as a game theorist, most concerned with the question of how to stack the odds in his team’s favor. His team, of course, is a particularly apocalyptic brand of white nationalism--but Bannon would never call himself a white nationalist. As Natalie Wynn has pointed out, Bannon’s kind are too canny at manipulating optics to allow their cover to be blown with a phrase like this. Instead, Bannon renounces all labels (“Let them call you racist,” he famously said), not allowing himself to be distracted from his work: undermining the very fabric of multiculturalism in America, under the guise of eliminating economic inequality (for white people) and therefore preventing violent revolution. He may be out of a job in the white house, but his work is still being done--by the current Breitbart team carrying on his legacy, by Stephen Miller, by Donald Trump, etc--and I think it would behoove those who detest his ideology to study up on Bannon’s war tactics if we don’t want the American people to be duped yet again.
This is key: like Morris’s other interview docs, American Dharma is not a debate. Despite this, some of the movie’smost vocal critics have pointed the finger at Morris for not “challenging” Bannon enough, not “pushing back” against his obvious falsehoods and fallacies. I see this criticism as symptomatic of a culture that values political pwnage: we obsessively watch and share YouTube videos of talking heads we like “totally DESTROYING” talking heads we hate, thinking that this accomplishes something. I have two lines of questioning for these critics: (1) Do you think Morris has it within his power to change Bannon’s mind? Or even the minds of those who might be inclined to sympathize with him? (2) Do you think that if Dinesh D’Souza made an interview documentary in which he “totally DESTROYS” Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you would watch it? Of course not, and of course you wouldn’t. Transparent propagandizing--even in the form of “civilized debate”--is too easily dismissed by the opposite side of the political spectrum. I think what American Dharma offers is far more pragmatically valuable: an opportunity to study the enemy; an opportunity to understand evil and better prepare ourselves for doing battle with it again--because Bannon and his kind still remain undefeated where it counts.