My skin curdles when politicians cite movies as their guides to governing the nation. Movies are dreams not position papers. Ronald Reagan looked to fanciful war films; Newt Gingrich wanted to imitate Boys Town and other romanticized versions of America in the 1930s. In Errol Morris’s American Dharma, Steve Bannon, the political operative and key advisor for a time to Donald Trump, waxes devotional over the 1949 Twelve O’clock High, a dreamy, idealized story about problems of command in an Air Force squadron stationed in England during World War II.
In many of his films – The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War – Morris searches for what mythologies drive his subjects. Bannon extols the stories of reluctant heroes in the westerns of John Ford. So, the film includes clips of Henry Fonda standing up to the Clanton’s in My Darling Clementine, and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards looking ferocious in The Searchers. Yet I think for Errol Morris, and certainly for me, Bannon misunderstands those films – he selects moments but avoids their contexts. Wayne may play a tough outcast in The Searchers, but his character is outcast for a reason -- he’s nasty, violent, loaded with race hatred and scary.
The title American Dharma comes from the Hindu concept, which Bannon describes as a blend of duty, fate and destiny. I’m not sure Hindus would buy into Bannon’s description, which seems to have a strong dimension of old German romanticism and its apocalyptic vision of the whole world going up in flames.
In American Dharma, Morris works somewhat differently from his earlier movies. He’s always used his voice off-screen in his portraits of people like former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, the architect of the war in Vietnam, or Donald Rumsfeld, who ran the invasion of Iraq. But here, Morris is often visible in a corner of shots with Bannon, and Morris goes beyond interview to engage Bannon in dialogue.
And Bannon asks Morris questions. They talk back and forth about why Morris voted for Hillary Clinton, and in what ways Bannon is an apocalyptic thinker. Morris challenges Bannon about being an anti-populist who finally sides with the big international corporations on things like climate change and against the so-called average people Bannon claims to champion.
The two agree on nothing, but they seem to like each other. They met years ago at The Telluride Film Festival. Bannon loves movies, and he directed films in Hollywood for some years.
At one point, Morris calls Bannon crazy, and I must agree with him. When Morris confronts him, Bannon often heads off in another direction. He’s way short on specifics, but repeatedly gets to the idea that everything must be torn down. I think he loves the idea of dying exquisitely in a great cataclysm – the fiery death of a mythic hero.
Bannon is also short on hard policy ideas, but he’s full of grandiose statements about coming social eruptions and is proud of the traps he’s laid – successfully – for despised political opponents like the Clintons.
The portrait Errol Morris fashions of Steve Bannon in American Dharma shows a man of outsized contradictions. He went to the most prominent universities – he studied international relations at Georgetown and got an MBA from Harvard, while at the same time he claims to be a great advocate for working class white America. He charges back and forth between tough political talk and his admiration for the heroic figures in the fanciful movies he watches over and over. His talk at first sounds coldly logical, but after a moment can seem delusional. Errol Morris finds him fascinating – and terrifying.