In my personal estimation, Errol Morris is a national treasure. His documentaries are always beautifully crafted, no matter what the subject matter is. His mastery of visual storytelling in the documentary form is almost unparalleled (except for maybe Werner Herzog, but that’s a story for another time) and he has the capacity to both enlighten and infuriate simultaneously, making it impossible to take our eyes away from the beautifully shot trainwreck before us. American Dharma is the height of that signature Errol Morris style.
If you didn’t know, the subject matter of American Dharma is the (not quite, unfortunately, but almost) universally loathed Harvard Business School graduate/filmmaker/investment banker/political strategist/evil mastermind, Steve Bannon. I have to admit I was extremely hesitant to watch this film, but Errol Morris kept me in my seat, and I’m glad he did. Trust me, Errol does not lionize his subject, he is quite frank and upfront with him about his opinions, which thankfully are diametrically opposed to Bannon’s.
The thing that is incredibly interesting about this hour-and-a-half long deep-dive into the psyche of the man who orchestrated the total travesty that is the Trump presidency is that Bannon wholeheartedly believes his own hype. He doesn’t show any shame, regret, or remorse for any of the choices that he made in regards to his work on the 2016 Presidential Campaign. In fact, he confirms most of our suspicions as to how the sausage was made. However, he sees himself as some kind of outcast badass folk hero in the vein of John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers or Gregory Peck in Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (both films are referenced directly in American Dharma).
“…universally loathed Harvard Business School graduate/filmmaker/investment banker/political strategist/evil mastermind, Steve Bannon.“
For someone who is part of the far-out wackadoo reaches of the Republican party, Bannon certainly uses language that is very similar to Socialism or Communism. He consistently speaks about a coming “Revolution” and how the “common man” is tired of being misrepresented and how the “elite” need to be overthrown. The thing that’s hilarious about this, is that Bannon does not have the self-awareness to realize that HE IS PART OF THAT ELITE, despite his obvious intelligence.
There is more than enough coverage of everything that’s been the American Nightmare that’s been ongoing since Trump’s election, but beyond that, we learn more about the news website that Bannon helped spearhead into infamy, Breitbart News. We also learn about the site’s late founder Andrew Breitbart and his pivotal role in the Anthony Weiner scandal, amongst other big news stories over the past half-a-decade or so. There is some shocking, but simultaneously hilarious footage of him screaming at Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park, telling them to “behave themselves” and calling them filthy rapists for whatever insane reason.
Bannon is almost sympathetic at some points in this film, but the key word is almost. While Morris gives his subject room to explain himself, he doesn’t stop taking him to task. It’s when this happens that we see how deep in denial and embroiled in his own rhetoric Mr. Bannon is, and for a brief moment you feel sorry for him until you remember he might be the actual Biblical devil. In conjunction with that, there is a scene where Morris says to Bannon, “I’ve been reading Milton’s Paradise Lost a lot lately and you remind me a lot of Lucifer in that story.” to which Bannon laughs and says “I’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven,” which is a world-famous line from the classic book, “Yeah I say that all the time.” Oof.
“I’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven…“
It’s really hard to say if this was Bannon’s attempt to spread the word to a wider audience, or what exactly. At times, he is completely on point, and at others, we do see his veneer crack a little bit. Especially at the point where Morris admits to Bannon that he voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary.
“You voted for Hillary Clinton? You, who directed The Fog of War?” he exclaims with what seems like a legitimate surprise. It seems as though Bannon is a fan of Morris’ films, considering that Bannon is a documentarian himself, not that I’ve ever seen any of his movies, including an “avant-garde film for Conservatives” that I forgot the name of that can probably be found on Breitbart or 4chan, if you feel like torturing yourself.
It just really is a shame that someone with as much capability and intelligence that Bannon possesses is using those powers to legitimately tear the legacy of this country to shreds. His whole agenda and personality and almost the crux of the entire documentary can be summed up in the following exchange between him and Morris:
Errol Morris: Do you just want to destroy everything? Clean out the decks and make way for the new?
Steve Bannon: I want to clean out some of the underbrush, yeah.
The thing is, I’m pretty sure most of us knew that or at least suspected. However, I suggest anyone and everyone see American Dharma to know precisely what kind of saboteurs our country is up against, and to, in the words of Rage Against The Machine, “Know Your Enemy!”
American Dharma (2018) Written and directed by Errol Morris. American Dharma screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival.
7 Out of 10 Stars (Because it’s about fucking Steve Bannon for Christ’s Sake)