2019, R, 95 min. Directed by Errol Morris.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 15, 2019
There's a moment in Mike Wallace Is Here in which Bill O'Reilly tells the veteran TV newsman that his rabid pit bull tactics were just an extension of Wallace's own style. It throws Wallace for a few seconds, puts him off his game, and reshapes the entire interview. When Steve Bannon – the self-appointed forefather of a newer world order – tries the same trick on Errol Morris, the godfather of modern analytical documentary filmmaking, you can almost hear the derision in Morris' voice.
The second documentary about the man who has tried to reshape the world on new, nationalistic, fascistic lines, Morris' American Dharma is no less critical of Bannon than Alison Klayman's The Brink. However, it does take a completely different – and more rewarding and constructive – tack. Klayman followed Bannon on his global connections with all the aspirational fascists, the Farages and Dewinters and Ekeroths. Yet, for all her access, Klayman laid out only a schematic of Bannon's plan – the what, not the why. Morris, as always, is less interested in answering either questions than in a real-time examination of the mind of an influential figure. In The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, it was about the self-critique of Johnson and Kennedy's secretary of defense: In The Unknown Known, it was Donald Rumsfeld tying himself in knots with his skin-deep intellectualism. But both of those films were portraits. American Dharma is a vivisection, and Morris gives Bannon the tools to do it himself.
What Morris realizes is that the ex-White House chief strategist and seething brain behind the modern "populist" agenda is not the kind of interviewee who is going to make a slip without being prompted. That's why the weeklong, one-on-one interview that forms the core of the movie was shot on a replica of the briefing room quonset hut from Bannon's favorite film, 1949's Twelve O’Clock High. It's both an insight into how his mind works (with his misguided reading of the term dharma, his worldview shaped by postwar films, 19th century politics, and ethno-fascist instincts) and a battleground, one forged to convince Bannon he has home-field advantage. He has rarely been more wrong.
Morris doesn't deny that Bannon has been incredibly successful in his malevolent agenda (putting him on the same short list of what Julian Assange, subject of 2017's Risk, describes as global actors) but separates his skill set and insight from his intellectual shortcomings and intersecting messiah/martyr complexes. Morris always does exactly enough to debunk his nonsense – including those rare moments of dismissive laughter – and show how his subject either pivots or doubles down, depending on what he thinks he needs to do.
Anyone expecting truth from Bannon is on a fool's errand, and the floating criticism that there's no confessional here is missing the entire point. It's not that Bannon lies, or dissembles, or deflects, or indulges in his own self-delusions. It's how he does them, when he does them. Everything is a gotcha moment that can only happen because Bannon views Morris as a worthy foe, and vice versa. The difference is that Bannon clearly thinks this is a game he can win by convincing Morris of the rightness and righteousness of his cause. Morris has stared down killers and fraudsters, mass murderers and con men. He knows the game. He knows the danger. He knows that moral superiority isn't enough, especially when facing someone with all the conviction and high-horse attitude of a Crusader. So instead of simple revelations, he achieves a resolution that is far more powerful: letting an ambitious brat born to power who can't even work out the end of Chimes at Midnight walk straight into a custom-made bear trap.