There’s a peculiar thing that happens the day after an election. All of the controversies and gaffes are wiped away, the months of campaigning forgotten, and the country is left with a set of winners and a set of losers. And suddenly, that becomes all they are: Any contradictory evidence is ignored, and the winners instantaneously become a group of brilliant political masterminds, while the losers are bumbling fools confined to the forgotten wastes of history.
Errol Morris‘ American Dharma (playing next week at the New York Film Festival) is a portrait of one of those newly labeled masterminds: Steve Bannon, the erstwhile conservative firebrand and former chief executive officer of Donald Trump’s successful bid for president in 2016. In the wake of that shocking upset victory, Bannon’s brand has been entirely reevaluated. Once a disheveled laughingstock best known for running a racist blog and living off of Seinfeld residuals, he quickly became known instead as a harbinger of doom, the sinister manipulator behind the rise of American fascism.
The documentary takes him on these terms, tracing his rise to power through the heroic lens of one of Bannon’s favorite films, Twelve O’Clock High. Morris even interviews Bannon on the set of a reconstructed bunker from the film, including numerous props drawn from its narrative. It’s all very ponderous and melodramatic and ends up leading the film into the same trap that last year’s Get Me Roger Stone did by blindly projecting brilliance onto Bannon without ever interrogating just how transparent his ideas really are.
Morris, whose subjects in the past have included Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, is no stranger to facing down a larger-than-life political figure, but here he meets his match. Bannon is admittedly a difficult documentary subject, at once incredibly engaging and completely intellectually vapid. Matters are only made worse by the fact that he largely dominates the proceedings, monologuing for extended portions of the film without any interruption. He rhapsodizes at length about his favorite movies and repeatedly misinterprets them to suit his own ends. He pats himself on the back for encouraging Trump to bring out Bill Clinton’s alleged victims in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. He defends the horde of neo-confederates who marched on Charlottesville last August. It’s a laundry list of despicable political rhetoric, and though Morris does occasionally challenge Bannon on the facts, he fails for even a millisecond to examine the unspoken premise of the documentary: that Bannon is to be taken wholly seriously.
In reality, what Bannon accomplished with the Trump campaign should not single him out for any kind of recognition. He was running a flawed campaign that faced off against a more flawed campaign, one that ended up collapsing under its own weight. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton does not speak well to their political instincts; it speaks poorly to hers. Trump’s unpopularity among voters was historic, only equaled by one other presidential candidate. Luckily for him, that candidate was his opponent.
In a race against a more popular and less scandal-ridden adversary, the flagrant incompetence of the Trump campaign could have led to a landslide defeat. When Clinton crops up in American Dharma to read her list of excuses for losing the election, we’re meant to laugh at her perceived inability to take responsibility, but instead, we’re reminded just what a gift the Trump campaign was handed. They were given every opportunity possible to seize victory, and Bannon and his cronies still only managed to barely creep over the finish line, winning by a margin of 100,000 votes across three battleground states. That isn’t a medal of honor. It’s a participation trophy.
Morris is happy to take Bannon’s political genius at face value, but when it comes to examining the ideas that make up that supposed genius, he comes up short. The grand conclusion of American Dharma comes when Bannon accuses the ruling class and modern consumerist culture of fostering an atmosphere among working people that will inevitably lead to a revolution. It’s an argument that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern leftist text, a diagnosis that identifies the right problems and correctly implicates those who are to blame. But instead of investigating and fully examining that point, Morris responds with laughably operatic footage of a burning American flag. His only further inquiry is to ask Bannon incredulously, “Do you just want to destroy everything?”
The answer to that question, of course, is no, no matter what pseudointellectual psychobabble Bannon spouts in response. Bannon doesn’t want to tear down the world order. He wants to sustain it, to mimic a populist revolution just convincingly enough that the people believe their revolution has finally come. He wants to performatively drain the swamp and then move its sickly creatures to a safer location. All of his nativism and corporate-funded racism stems from that one desire: to keep the white, wealthy ruling class in power for just a little bit longer.
Morris gets that basic truth of Bannon as a populist wolf in sheep’s clothing superficially correct but doesn’t dive deep enough into Bannon’s character to truly understand just what makes him tick. The doc gives us a window into Bannon’s bloated self-regard for himself but never comes close to unraveling how he sees the world. It’s easy to wonder why he can’t quite crack the code, but Morris answers that question himself. In the middle of a heated exchange in which Bannon ridicules his interviewer for voting for Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, Morris snaps and shouts at his subject. “I was afraid!” he yells. “I was afraid of you guys.” Here, the documentarian’s miscalculation is laid bare. You can’t come at a man like Steve Bannon from a place of fear. It will only make him stronger.