A lot of people are furious at legendary documentarian Errol Morris for having the gall to make a documentary about contemporary Prince of Darkness Steve Bannon. That’s understandable. Why give this guy a platform if you consider yourself a good Liberal? Well, maybe because if Bannon has proved nothing else over the course of his troubling career, it’s that by keeping everyone locked into opposing sides of debates without speaking to each other, bad people can gain more power unchallenged.
Of course we should engage with the deluded narcissist who created the alt-right and held Trump’s tiny hand as he campaigned through Hilary Clinton. You can’t know exactly how evil a supervillain truly is until you let him talk long enough to reveal his master plan.
It’s pretty clear before even watching American Dharma that it forms a third chapter in Errol Morris’ trilogy about troubling political masterminds whose confused ideas and questionable ideals led America to disaster. In the past, he gave Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld just enough rope to hang themselves in The Fog of War and The Unknown Known respectively. You’d think that might make a polarizing figure like Steve Bannon feel a little uneasy about sitting down for an Errol Morris interrogation. Fortunately, unchecked ego remains the great flaw of assholes everywhere. Somehow, not only did Bannon want this to happen, it was actually his idea. In fact, he doesn’t even think American Dharma has a connection to those other two features. Why? Well, that’s kind of what the movie is about.
You see, Steve Bannon’s whole shtick is that he considers himself an underdog destined to take down the political elite class by appealing to the forgotten working man. In reality, he’s a wealthy white dude who has spent his entire life within the elite class and doesn’t actually seem to care about any specific “common man,” just a mass of people he knows he can manipulate. Time and time again in the documentary, Bannon tells Errol Morris that a revolution is coming that will burn America as we know it to the ground and he wants to be the one to lead the charge. As for what he plans to do once the world burns and he and his ilk are crowned kings? No clue. He just wants change. The beauty of embracing anarchy and the act revolution is that you don’t actually need to present solutions to problems. You just need to rant about what’s wrong long enough to get people to pick up torches.
Errol Morris shoots his feature-length Bannon interview in a rotting airport hanger and the editing and cinematography embrace a horror movie’s sense of atmosphere, doom, and gloom. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t care for Bannon. He even tells the guy that he’s scared of him and what he represents. Bannon doesn’t care. He just keeps talking. Perhaps what’s most frightening about this polarizing prick is that fact that despite all of the contradictions and hatred buried within his politics, Bannon isn’t an idiot and he isn’t even wrong in many of his assessments of America. That would be too easy. Instead, he correctly identified a forgotten mass of people and figured out how to speak to them and manipulate them, even though his ultimate plan was little more than disruption and distortion. It’s frightening to hear him talk in such measured and rational tones. But as Morris has done many times before, he keeps letting the guy talk, and soon enough the sinister shittiness of his true nature reveals itself.
While some will whine that American Dharma doesn’t nail Bannon strongly enough, they simply aren’t paying attention. I mean, before the movie ends the guy says that he identifies with Lucifer in Dante’s Inferno and thinks that Falstaff got what he deserved. What more do you need to prove this diabolical narcissist doesn’t really care about the little guy no matter how many times he says he does? Yes, you’ll walk out of American Dharma feeling uneasy, but that’s mostly because no matter how insane Bannon’s views can seem at times, they’re not only rationally thought-out, but have been proven to work. The fact is that this weird and sad little man has indeed changed the global political landscape forever while everyone else was too busy dismissing him to intervene. It’s important to listen to this asshole and pay attention, because otherwise he’ll only get stronger and even more Bannons will emerge to do even more damage.
American Dharma will be a very divisive and frequently dismissed documentary by viewers on all sides of the political spectrum, but you ignore Errol Morris’ new doc at your own peril. Stephen K. Bannon’s perverted brand of populism can still be stopped.