By Peter Keough
Errol Morris allows Stephen Bannon to indulge in his vision of how he will save America, with Donald Trump as his agent and himself as the genius manipulating events.
American Dharma directed by Errol Morris, screens on Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive. The filmmaker will be in attendance for a Q & A.
Movies inspire Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and former Chief Strategist for the administration.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949) taught him that you don’t need to be a nice guy to be a successful leader, that you needed to be tough like General Savage, Gregory Peck’s character in the movie. Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) about the former Secretary of Defense and the architect of the Vietnam War confirmed his belief that elites controlled this country and were destroying the lower classes for their own profit.
Bannon himself has made films, among them the propaganda documentaries In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004) and Generation Zero (2010). “Seeing Fog of War at Telluride was the inspiration,” he tells Morris in the latter’s new documentary American Dharma. Morris replies, “What an honor.”
Will Bannon find this film inspiring as well? Morris gives him plenty of time to outline his case. He sets the interview in a Quonset hut that is a replica of the one where Peck gives a pep talk to his demoralized airmen. He doesn’t ask a lot of questions of his subject or always dispute dubious facts. Instead he allows Bannon to indulge in his vision of how he will save America, with Donald Trump as his agent and himself as the genius manipulating events.
What Morris does do, though, is more cinematic. He intercuts some of his subject’s claims with montages of headlines or media clips that contradict him. Early in the film Bannon gleefully explains that while he was executive chairman of the right-wing Breitbart website he “weaponized” the alt-right readers for the movement that would ultimately bring Trump to power. But when Morris confronts him with images of the alt-right demonstrators at Charlottesville and Trump’s assertions that there were good and bad people on both sides of this ugly confrontation, Bannon claims that the alt-right is meaningless and an invention of the leftist mainstream media.
Morris then, as it were, rolls the tape — a montage of alt-right, anti-Semitic, and racist headlines from Breitbart.
Morris does not bring up the negative comments Bannon made about Trump and his administration quoted in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. But he does encourage him to say things that probably won’t please his former employer.
Like taking credit for Trump’s election, especially doing damage control after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump brags about grabbing women by the crotch.
Bannon relates how he used “jiu-jitsu” tactics to counter the impact of the scandal. Why not turn the story back on the other side by inviting women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to Trump’s debate with Hillary? That, he believes, saved the campaign.
Morris then cuts to clips that point out that perhaps this distasteful stunt didn’t have as much impact on the election as the Russian-hacked Podesta emails dumped by WikiLeaks at the same time. The subject of Russia, finally breached, has Bannon squirming.
Morris might have pursued this and other incriminating topics further. But maybe what Bannon confides with him is incriminating enough. The film ends with the Twelve O’Clock High Quonset hut engulfed in flames. American dharma, which Bannon defines as the combination of “duty, fate, and destiny,” has become American karma.
Peter Keough, currently a contributor to The Boston Globe, had been the film editor of The Boston Phoenix from 1989 until its demise in March. He edited Kathryn Bigelow Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) and is now editing a book on children and movies for the National Society of Film Critics.