“American Dharma”: Classic Films Reveal the Psyche of Steve Bannon

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Silence greets Errol Morris, acclaimed film director and documentarian, as he begins a discussion post-screening of his new film at the 2018 New York Film Festival.  An uncomfortable tension hangs in the room as viewers contemplate the platform the film gives to a widely-criticized political figure. Morris sits expectantly on the stage as the post-screening interview begins. A few hands gingerly rise throughout the packed auditorium. The prompt? Morris asks, “Did anyone think this was pro [Bannon]?”

Morris’ film premiere of “American Dharma” has been met with a hellstorm of controversy since its New York premiere on Sept. 29. The documentary peers into the psyche of one of American politics most polarizing figures - none other than Steve Bannon.

And while the likes of the New Yorker and Vox have denounced Morris for giving Bannon an outlet to preach his views, a majority of the audience at the Lincoln Center on Saturday night seemed on Morris’ side - he was an interviewer, not the enabler.

“American Dharma” delves into Bannon’s mind through a unique angle - his love and interpretation of classical films.

“I think in this day and age it is a mistake to sit on your hands and do nothing,” Morris explains at the start of the night. And regardless of its divided reception, Morris’ philosophy seems justified to himself. To Morris, interviewing Bannon meant bringing to light many of his questionable ideologies in an attempt to understand, and perhaps dispel them.

“American Dharma” delves into Bannon’s mind through a unique angle - his love and interpretation of classical films.

“Dharma,” traditionally a Hindu term, is to Bannon the “combination of duty, fate and destiny,” which he illustrates through the actions of various beloved movie characters.

Bannon draws comparisons of his ideologies - his “dharma” - to films like “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), starring Gregory Peck, and “Bridge Over the River Kwai” (1954), starring Alec Guinness, using the main characters’ sense of duty as a metaphor for his own.

Morris claims as much.

“He lives in this strange world of fantasy,” Morris said in conversation after the film. “Who would have ever thought ... that classic American movies, movies that we all love … could also be in some deep sense fascistic or support fascistic ideas?”

The documentary’s premise is a conversation with Bannon. However, it doesn’t play out as a mere interview. Skewed camera angles, uncomfortably-intense close-ups and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s gripping score, unveil a disturbing thriller in 95 minutes.

What may have been a cut-and-dried interview with the divisive political influencer, like many others before it, is instead a thematic peek under the hood of the self-proclaimed anarchist.

The interview takes place in a reconstructed as seen on “Twelve O’Clock High.” It is here that Bannon is himself, General Savage.

“He lives in this strange world of fantasy. Who would have ever thought ... that classic American movies, movies that we all love … could also be in some deep sense fascistic or support fascistic ideas?” —Morris

In the film, Bannon takes potentially noble ideals further. He calls for a complete overthrow of the current system--a revolution. Morris seems wary of Bannon’s flexible use of the term “dharma” to describe these ideals about government deregulation, protecting the blue-collar mases and populism.

“Bannon sees these movies, I suppose, as a fulfillment of ‘Dharma’ - whatever the hell that means,” says Morris. “You could use that kind of argument to justify anything - isn’t it just a fulfillment of duty […] independent of any ethical concern?”

Overall, Morris’ interview walks through the history of Bannon’s career. Notable moments include his time as executive chairman of far-right news outlet Breitbart, and, more famously, as campaign-manager-turned-adviser to President Trump. The interview also delves into jarring events like the Charlottesville protests and the infamous Anthony Weiner scandal.

Ever the interviewer, Morris is pragmatic on the issue of Bannon - even declaring at one point in the film there is a “good Bannon” and “bad Bannon” - to which he later declared, “I think people are outraged that I might suggest there is a good Bannon.”

 Photo Credit: Anne Sraders & Anastassia G.

Photo Credit: Anne Sraders & Anastassia G.

Still, Morris’ bias is certainly felt at times in the documentary.

Throughout the film, Morris presses Bannon on his admittedly radical ideas. At one point, Morris declares to the former Trump advisor, that the President of the United States is the “F--k you President.”

“You want health care? F--k you. You want clean drinking water? F--k you,” Morris imitates the President’s supposed attitude.  

Still, audience members and critics alike were nonplussed by Morris’ disapproval of Bannon in the film.

Richard Brody wrote for the New Yorker earlier last week that Morris’ portrayal of Bannon may be verging on dangerous.

He claimed that “instead of cutting through the media sludge of banalized discourse and sustaining analytical patience and precision in the face of sloganeering, instead of focusing on the specific implications and effects of what Bannon is saying, Morris contributes to, and sinks into, the same sludge that yielded the current-day political outrages to law and decency that he himself fears and reviles.”

But, despite heavy-hitting criticism, Morris maintains his strong opinion - albeit off-screen.

“[Bannon] really does want to destroy things,” Morris said. “Yes, there is the forgotten middle class; there’s the search for remedies to unemployment. But the heart of it, whether it’s the tax bill or…[a] host of other things…[it] strikes me as a kind of meanness and destructiveness that, more than anything else, is distressing. I like to think our country is better than this.”

Regardless of the context, the way in which Morris examines Bannon’s mindset - through 20th century films, no less - is unusual, to say the least.

“Movies are like a Rorschach test,” Morris claims. “They’re a way to explore character and motivation [and] a way to see how a person sees the world.”

And yet, audiences remain divided on “Dharma.”

“I think it might be a mistake to suggest there is a good Bannon, but it makes it more interesting,” Morris laughed.