American Dharma does the devil’s work too well
Perhaps American Dharma, the new feature-length interview between filmmaker Errol Morris and right-wing propagandist Stephen Bannon, should never have been made.
Across the world, no-platform campaigns have starved far-right celebrities to a minimum of influence, such that whenever Bannon, the self-proclaimed populist strategist credited with escorting Donald Trump to the presidency, attempts a public appearance, he does so opposed by scores of principled detractors. A high-profile invitation to speak at the New Yorker Festival in 2018 was rescinded almost as soon as it was announced; and even his successful appearances, at Canada’s Munk Debates for example, are opposed on site as a capitulation to racist nationalism.
Only wishful thinking would presume such tactics to have banished Bannon, who has traveled the world since departing the White House, consulting with right-wing politicians from Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson. This canvassing belies his putative “economic nationalism,” even as it demonstrates that he is far from a passive recipient of his reputation. Nevertheless, it is true that Bannon’s stateside venues have diminished under pressure, and this is the backdrop against which Errol Morris’ conversation with Bannon appears.
American Dharma presumes familiarity with a pair of influential precedents from Morris’s filmography. In the 2003 documentary, The Fog of War, Morris sits down with former Secretary of State Robert McNamara, a principal architect of the Vietnam War, to assess his life and legacy.
Over the course of eleven “lessons”—“empathize with your enemy,” “maximize efficiency,” falling considerably short of Sun Tzu in their platitudinous compression—McNamara relates the story of his life as an imperial destroyer. By the end of the film, Morris has all but coaxed a criminal confession. The film is masterful and maddening, ostensibly humanizing of its subject and historically excoriating in the end. At a crucial moment, McNamara declines Morris’s invitation to apply his lessons to the present-day invasion of Iraq, citing political decorum and delegating any such interpretation to the viewer.
Consequently, Morris’s 2013 film, The Unknown Known, feels like an indirect sequel, tracing the career arc of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of the minds behind the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rumsfeld is a master prevaricator, and the film offers real insight into the bureaucratic dispersion of responsibility for wartime atrocity.
One can only admire these films, and American Dharma counts its subject among their fans. At the outset of their conversation, Bannon professes his admiration for Morris’s output, declaring The Fog of War as a major point of inspiration for his own work as a filmmaker and propagandist. This mercenary enthusiasm becomes a hallmark of Bannon’s oratory, in which the demurely indignant Morris frequently appears to have met his match. Over the course of this film, Bannon manages to appear the anarchist trickster, albeit of racist persuasion, while Morris sits and mourns.
As a rabid isolationist and anti-establishment figure, Bannon’s contempt for any political office places him in opposition to the hawkish figures that Morris has profiled so far. If anything, McNamara and Rumsfeld have more in common with former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton—whose defeat in the 2016 presidential race takes pride of place on Bannon’s political résumé—than with a culture warrior like Bannon, and he plays upon his professional affinity with Morris throughout their conversation. In a tense volley, Bannon scolds his interlocutor: “How could you make The Fog of War [and] The Unknown Known and vote for Hilary Clinton?”
With this challenge, Bannon summarizes the deep antipathy driving his politics, toward an establishment that encompasses the hawkish prodigality of the Bush and Obama years alike, as well as the senseless expenditure of the Vietnam War; and Morris appears poorly equipped to answer for an imperial project that he has elsewhere eloquently opposed.
To a large extent, American Dharma glosses an impasse of liberal politics that it nonetheless fails to explain, reiterating the mistakes of the Democratic campaign in miniature. Bannon is not merely illiberal, but a far-right provocateur purposed against civil society. For this reason alone he fares spectacularly well in dialogue with liberals, against whom he appears ambiguously populist, borrowing talking points from left and right alike. Over the course of Bannon’s ascent, centrists have permitted him this self-characterization, as a post-political anti-pundit speaking for a beleaguered working class.
“I’m on a mission to remake the Republican Party into a kind of worker’s party,” Bannon explains. Only an authentically leftist program could negate these claims with any exactitude, while liberalism simply cannot rally a critique. Why did Morris vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries? “Fear,” he answers without hesitation, and that affect prevails throughout a film without a forceful politics—a vacancy Bannon explores with obvious glee.
Bannon acts the leading man with ease, an opportunity afforded him by Morris, who greets him in the unlikely guise of critic. In a reflexive turn, their conversation is structured as an annotated filmography, as Bannon narrates his worldview through the lens of his favourite movies. Bannon’s selections speak to a sense of fatal vocation; he expounds upon the stoicism of John Wayne, identifying with the grizzled visage of the colonizer breaking new frontiers. In a bizarre accommodation, Morris interviews Bannon in an abandoned airplane hangar from the set of Twelve O’Clock High, a World War II drama starring Gregory Peck. As Bannon strolls the empty set of this 70-year-old film, the visual superimposition seems to belittle its solitary cast. But over the course of his commentary, Bannon reveals himself to be more perspicacious than unwitting, and only solemnly ridiculous.
Bannon’s abrupt departure from the White House is counterposed to the climactic coronation of the prodigal Hal at the end of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II. In this moment, the young king casts off the sordid influence of Sir John Falstaff in order to assume the throne, denouncing him with newfound surety. While Trump fails to channel a comparable eloquence, Bannon relates directly to the appetitive outlaw in the hour of his banishment. When Morris offers that Falstaff has been betrayed, Bannon refuses this interpretation. “It’s his duty,” Bannon says, to which the tragic hero can only acquiesce. This is the dharma for which the film is named, evoking both earthly vocation and cosmic law. If anything, Bannon’s pseudo-spiritual lexicon borrows necessity from chance, as though his excrescences were other than an imperial symptom themselves.
Either way, Bannon’s pervading sense of fatedness makes him a less than satisfying target of simple mockery, a staple of the #Resistance arsenal. The crude physiognomical jibes of a pundit class, whose own politics are largely caricatural, do not bear on the ugliness of Bannon’s politics. Bannon’s implied identity with the flatulent influencer Falstaff, who endures as a figure of conniving folly, is canny. As Morris flatters Bannon with Miltonic comparisons (“better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”) one notes that Falstaff is not even distantly Luciferian. He is not a romantic anti-hero but a non-hero, a figure of self-interested contentment, possessed of a certain randy zen.
Bannon’s media savvy surely commends these archetypes to his agenda, which immediately concerns an unseemly nostalgia for a homogeneous America that never was; for a social code based on masculine reticence; for an apparent sovereign whose every whim, however pathological, becomes law; for a frontier to despoil; and most importantly, for an Other to target and blame. The terse period pieces that Bannon curates are nothing if not nostalgic, in the strict sense that they attribute particular values of the present to an imaginary setting in which they are presumed to be universal. But Bannon is no mere Reaganite cinephile, and his tactics considerably exceed the moral instructional apparatus of film.
These Hollywood texts may be crucial to Bannon’s self-understanding, but his application of their lessons is subject to a technological dispersion that eludes classical organization, let alone the moral goad of narrative. Bannon’s guerrilla style flourishes in a new media episteme, a culture of parcelled conviction that eludes dialogic repair. This is why Bannon is content to sit with any of his liberal detractors—he understands that he isn’t talking to them, but past them; he is not talking with them, but by way of them, for he speaks only to his own. When Morris lands a moment of persuasive pushback, accusing Bannon of working for the wealthy, thus contradicting his professed populism, Bannon’s icy stare is rebuttal enough. For all the moments of conviviality, American Dharma is not a conversation.
To this end, American Dharma stands apart from Morris’ preceding interviews formally, too. One of Morris’s trademarks is his use of the Interrotron, a two-way mirror producing the illusion that the interviewee is speaking directly to the camera and the viewer on the other side. This immediately models a bilateral speech situation, though Morris stands aside to create the impression of a direct appeal to the viewer. This trademark identification of the viewer’s interests with the camera presumes a certain pictorial stability, where a camera coincides with an integrated point-of-view, both literally and subjectively. Strikingly, Morris abandons this technique in American Dharma, speaking to Bannon from across a table but filming himself from behind, framing Bannon in profile and from a variety of low angles. Where Rumsfeld and McNamara, even at their most evasive, appeared open-faced before Morris’s questioning, Bannon is a closed book.
Bluntly, Morris is a terrible foil; his fearful belief in a bygone civil society renders him more or less powerless to interrogate Bannon’s anti-establishment line. More so than in any of his feature length interviews, Morris relies on dramatic music and apocalyptic cut screens—burning flags, the airport hangar engulfed in flames—to produce the confrontation that he can’t muster. From hackneyed intertitles, replete with superfluous hashtags for maximum cuteness, to the collaged newspaper headlines intended to index public outrage, American Dharma fails politically at precisely these moments of didactic agitation.
As Bannon holds forth on his formation as a far-right propagandist, he evinces a far more sophisticated grasp on the political stakes of media than Morris. “Culture is upriver of politics,” Bannon repeats, a mantra impressed upon him by his one-time employer, Andrew Breitbart. Lapsing into doctrinaire media theory, the erstwhile filmmaker praises Breitbart’s intelligence: “He understands that the modern political world has become media,” exalts Bannon: “The medium is the message.” McLuhan’s adage underwrites an entire approach to politics, where “populism” means an elite agenda restated in a popular idiom.
Bannon understands the extent to which a one-time separation of communications and entertainment media no longer obtains. There is a direct line between his early experiments with gold mining in World of Warcraft, mapping the digital world onto analog reality and transforming leisure time into a maximally extractive site of labour, and his weaponization of the gutters of the internet via comments sections and messageboards. Bannon displays a great deal of artistic ambition for a political hack, describing his 2010 film Generation Zero as “an avant-garde film for right-wingers”; but as an exercise in applied mediology, it puts its thesis into practice, offering a cultural explanation for the 2008 financial crisis.
However noxious, Bannon’s experimental agit-prop formally mirrors the conspiracist tenor of works by putatively leftist filmmakers like Adam Curtis. Both eschew the patient conversation of an Errol Morris for a barrage of random stimulus, with an understanding that arguments are not won argumentatively in the psycho-suggestive marketplace of feelings, not ideas. In order to account for the ascent of someone like Bannon, one must account for how certain hallmarks of experimental style were gradually incorporated into a popular vocabulary over the twentieth-century, so as to stand in for dissenting values despite their deep agreement with the status quo.
No simple media genealogy could account for the political influence of Bannon, nor for the popularity of a bilious mogul like Trump. But throughout the film, Bannon manages to hold forth with tremendous specificity as to his particular agenda, advocating racist extremism in the guise of productivist localism, stoking an intra-capitalist Cold War between emerging and imperial economies, and bundling these platforms in an isolationist pitch that partakes of Morris’s anti-war tropes with mercenary delight. Morris presumes his viewer’s contempt for this agenda, but Bannon speaks with the moral surety of the persecuted.
What good is American Dharma for politics? Superficially, the film draws back the curtain on a cynical campaign that far exceeds the influence of the presidency in its implication, having commenced when Donald Trump was a cavorting Democrat. But this is only Bannon’s résumé, damnable as fact, and Morris does little to push back against his leading man’s perception of himself as a clandestine kingmaker. In spite of his proximity to history, Morris errs in thinking archetypally about Bannon, perpetrating an infernal portraiture that flatters the fascist’s self-mythology. As merely scalded cross-interrogation, verging on unwitting apologia, American Dharma does the devil’s work too well.