Errol Morris’s new ninety-eight-minute documentary, American Dharma, draws on sixteen hours of interviews that the director has conducted with former investment banker, former filmmaker and producer, former Breitbart News executive chairman, former White House Chief Strategist, and current right-wing gadfly Steve Bannon. The film premiered in Venice in the immediate wake of a brouhaha that saw the cancellation of Bannon’s appearance as a headliner at this coming weekend’s New Yorker Festival. Other guests invited to the event billed as a “festival of ideas,” such as Jim Carrey, John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow, had threatened to withdraw unless Bannon was pulled from the bill. New Yorker editor David Remnick relented but not without a defense of the decision to invite Bannon in the first place.
“The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism,” wrote Remnick in a formal statement, and this is, of course, also the primary objection to American Dharma raised at press conferences in Venice and Toronto and in several reviews. “But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him,” Remnick continued. “The point of an interview, a rigorous interview, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.” So does Morris put sufficient pressure on Bannon’s ideas to justify his feature-length interview?
The pressure comes first and foremost in the form of the presence of Morris himself as interrogator. Morris can’t get Bannon to budge from his positions or his support for the man who fired him, Donald Trump, but he does manage to stump him when he asks, as Doug Dibbern points out in the Notebook, “why, if Bannon imagines himself as an advocate for the working class, he supports a candidate who will cut taxes for the ultra-wealthy and eviscerate environmental protections.” Morris “holds a shot of Bannon’s blank, disconcerted expression for as long as he can, so that, I thought, you could almost see his eyes twitch, the visible sign of a decent but microscopic soul searching for an escape route from its self-constructed mental limits.”
There’s also an on-screen flurry of headlines and snippets from social media to combat Bannon’s arguments and more than a little discussion of some of Bannon’s favorite movies: Twelve O’Clock High, Chimes at Midnight, The Bridge on the River Kwai, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. Bannon readily identifies with John Wayne in John Ford’s classic western, and that truly rattles Dibbern: “That Bannon doesn’t seem to understand or to mind the incontrovertible fact that Wayne is the villain—which even Wayne himself was able to see—is chilling.”
So Morris racks up a few points, but for many critics, not enough to score a knockout. “It’s clear enough that the director doesn’t buy into Bannon’s overarching narrative of Trump as a revolutionary warrior giving power back to the disenfranchised workers of America,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims, “but the film is still too dominated by Bannon’s monologuing for the contrasts to really land.” At Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov’s frustration with the film borders on anger: “We live in profoundly, dangerously stupid times; Morris’s film does nothing to clarify them or combat their architects.”