Film & TV

The Radioactive Steve Bannon Movie

Steve Bannon at a news conference. December 8, 2018. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)
Judge for yourself whether Errol Morris’ documentary American Dharma affronts the Republic by being too kind to Bannon.

Hollywood was so disgusted by the new Steve Bannon documentary that no distributor would touch it for more than a year. Slate branded the film “radioactive” and “toxic,” even though its director, Errol Morris, has impeccable left-wing credentials and an Oscar on his resume. Blackballed for six months, Morris tweeted out in frustration the following: “F**k ’em. I will distribute the movie myself.”

That didn’t happen. A tiny distributor finally took on the project, and now you can judge for yourself whether American Dharma affronts the Republic by being too kind to Bannon. Morris has called it a “horror movie,” and the questions he poses hardly indicate he’s gone MAGA. “Do you ever see yourself just hastening the end of everything?” he asks Bannon, and “Do you just want to destroy everything?” A Barbara Walters interview this is not.

Yet here is what Morris does that has liberals so hysterical: He listens. He is interested in what Bannon has to say. He doesn’t dig into the usual bag of tricks available to a documentarian to make a gotcha movie. Documentaries used to be praised for allowing the audience to decide for itself what it thought of the subject; American Dharma outrages critics because it doesn’t seize every opportunity to slam its subject.

Variety dubbed the film a “bromance” and the mutual respect, or at least fascination, is evident. Each man is equally prone to hyperbole; the filmmaker reduces President Trump to ideas such as, “You want clean drinking water? F*** you.” (Why progressives convince themselves pollution is out of control anytime a Republican is president, as has been the case for 30 of the last 50 years, is baffling.) Bannon says that because of globalization, ordinary folk are “nothing but serfs” and warns “they’ve taken all of your rights and all of your personhood,” adding, “There’s gonna be a revolution in this country. It’s coming.” He means a populist, anti-elitist uprising. This seems unlikely.

Morris bitterly opposes such sentiments, but what do you do when you’re talking to a guy who, when you compare him to Satan in Paradise Lost, readily agrees? Bannon even volunteers that he loves the line, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Morris feels no need to paint Bannon as diabolical, not when the man is approvingly quoting Satan.

Morris is merely taking after John Milton when he lets Bannon explain himself. A moment of revelation hit when his daughter was a West Point cadet. He took a look at the school volleyball uniforms: labels read, “Made in Vietnam.” “I lost it,” says Bannon, an ex-Navy officer. “What was it all for?” We fought a war in Vietnam, got humiliated and now (according to Bannon) Vietnam is eating our lunch by taking low-paid manufacturing work. Opposing globalism became Bannon’s calling after that, and when he became first the proprietor of Breitbart, then the CEO of the Donald Trump presidential campaign in August of 2016, he found himself leading a rejuvenated nationalist movement.

Updating WFB’s famous mot, Bannon says he’d rather be ruled by the first 100 people to show up at a Trump rally in MAGA hats than the first 100 to show up at a Davos summit of elites. For Bannon, “elite” is shorthand for everything he thinks is wrong with U.S. policy: Self-serving Washington bureaucracy, fondness for illegal immigration because it provides the plutocracy with cheap labor, and a willingness to stir up endless wars of choice that’ll be fought by other people’s children.

Bannon, who was also profiled in another documentary, The Brink, earlier this year, is himself a documentary filmmaker, and Morris is the reason he got into that trade. Fog of War, Morris’s 2003 documentary on Robert McNamara and the Vietnam debacle, captivated Bannon and made him think he had discovered a kindred spirit. Bannon looks shocked when Morris tells him he voted for Hillary Clinton (though anyone familiar with Morris’s work would have guessed this).

Yet even as Morris rehearses left-wing talking points in his interviews with Bannon, he seems disarmed to learn that his subject thinks of himself in terms of cinema, notably Twelve O’Clock High. Morris does Bannon the courtesy of dramatizing his ideas by filming him in dramatic settings that evoke the danger and heroism of that 1949 Gregory Peck film about World War II bomber pilots. This detail is particularly enraging to the Left, and framing Bannon as a bomber commander does seem unearned, though it’s hardly atypical for documentarians to resort to overly dramatic tropes to pump up their talking-head footage.

Morris plainly likes it when Bannon speaks his language by explaining his outlook via great movies — John Ford’s The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; David Lean’s The Bridge over the River Kwai; Orson Welles’s Falstaff story Chimes at Midnight. Clips from all of these turn up in the doc by way of illumination, and you can almost hear liberal film critics screaming, “Bannon is not allowed to share our good taste!”

Cast out of the White House when his brand of politics was associated with the Charlottesville rally and murder, Bannon sees himself as Falstaff being cast out of King Henry V’s court. “It was the natural order of things,” he says. Comparing himself to Falstaff seems a bit much, especially if Trump is meant to be the new Henry V, but considering that in his last documentary Bannon compared the Trump White House to “a Jersey strip club at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” credit the man with at least upgrading his references.

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