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NYFF: Errol Morris's "American Dharma"

Errol Morris's goal of giving voice to the enemy proves noble but intrinsically problematic in his new documentary about Steve Bannon.
American Dharma
It’s a curious choice, ethically, to give Steve Bannon a voice: Errol Morris runs the risk of legitimating him. On the other hand, we all have an obligation—especially those of us East Coast liberal elites who are still utterly dumbfounded by the 2016 election—to understand how the other half lives: in this case, to hear from the mind that apparently understands the American electorate—or, a powerful minority of the electorate that lost the last presidential popular vote—in a way that I obviously do not. This goal—let’s call it Giving Voice to the Enemy—is noble, but intrinsically problematic. It is these two competing impulses—of listening to opposing opinions but also of validating the abhorrent—that define and propel American Dharma, and Morris zigzags—or stumbles—between them without ever being able to resolve the tension, perhaps because that tension is ultimately not resolvable. So I’m conflicted about this film because I want Morris to satisfyingly unravel the conflict that he’s set up; but at the same time, I’ve always maintained that it’s precisely insoluble tensions such as these that undergird the goodness of all good movies.
Given this dilemma, the movie functions best as drama, surprisingly, when Morris lets Bannon direct the conversation. The sequences in which Bannon presents himself as an actual intellectual are compelling—precisely because I’ve associated his political position with so much unthinking, ugly resentment. But here he is analyzing some of my favorite old Hollywood films—Twelve O’Clock High, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers—and opining on Shakespeare and Milton. And, admittedly, when he talks about the working class, I experienced a few uncomfortable moments when I felt a surge of emotion with him.
But at the same time, to counteract the very problem that he himself has constructed, Morris feels an obligation to take the opposite tack, challenging or critiquing—sometimes directly, sometimes subtly—Bannon’s conspicuous political and intellectual inconsistencies. Unexpectedly for a documentarian, Morris brings his own voice in, making his presence and jocular intimacy with the subject readily apparent to the viewer. We hear him struggling to defend his own vote for Hillary over Bernie in the primaries; we hear him struggling to explain to Bannon the indisputable racism of Charlottesville. In one of the film’s best moments, Morris asks the obvious question 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, and then he 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. At another point, when Bannon talks about The Searchers—a painful moment to realize that he knows and admires one of the works of art that is most important to me—and he acknowledges, at Morris’s prompting, that he identifies with John Wayne, Morris slyly cuts to the moment in that film when Wayne watches over a few white captives recently rescued from their Comanche abductors and explains dismissively that they’re not white anymore, one of Wayne’s ugliest moments in a movie soaked through with his racism. 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.
That being said, Morris’s moments of critical engagement seem too few and too diffuse. He challenges Bannon on Charlottesville, of course, but leaves it mostly unexamined. Bannon had earlier championed Breitbart’s embrace of its unfettered comments section as a productive democratic outlet for conservative populists unable to hear their own voice in the mainstream media. But this is precisely the moment that Morris could have gone back to the overwhelming evidence of racist invective on those comments pages to more overtly charge Bannon and his ilk not just as implicit apologists for, but as the direct catalysts of, the nation’s neo-Nazi resurgence.
With all that in mind, it was surprising—and disappointing—that Morris entrusts the film’s conclusion to Bannon’s voice. He concludes the film with Bannon opining once again that a revolution is brewing in the land. He’s come back to this word “revolution” again and again throughout the film like a dull child droolingly entranced by a shimmering piece of string. A revolution? What does that even mean to him? Men in hardhats clambering over burnt-out, overturned cars on the Capitol steps on their way to write up a sparklingly liberating new constitution? Has Bannon ever stopped to consider the totalitarian fate of most revolutions—the French, the Russian, the Iranian, the Cuban, the Arab Spring? Morris doesn’t push him on the patent inanity of his revolutionary fervor because he makes the dubious decision to embrace the idea of “revolution” as his own.
In other words, Morris wants us to read his conclusion in two ways: one the one hand, to make his audience afraid of the revolution that conservative demagogues might incite by manipulating the resentments of the working class, or, on the other hand, to make his audience cheer for the leftist revolution he more clearly hopes for, enticing the working class to the liberal fold. But by implicitly using Bannon’s words to ironically wink at his knowing audience, Morris still makes himself complicit in them; that is, he has fallen into the inevitable trap he set up for himself when he chose to Give Voice to the Enemy. By organizing the entire picture around Bannon’s worldview, he cannot escape those mental preconceptions—he can only articulate his own vision of the world within Bannon’s conceptual framework, his limited intellectual sphere.
So, a revolution? I say no. How about the much less sexy, slow accretion of gains through a democratic process, which has, over the decades, earned most people a better life? How about we elect people who will dramatically increase taxes on millionaires and use that money to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, increase the minimum wage, make college as close to free as possible, and provide universal, affordable access to health care, just as a start? But, to articulate those extremely levelheaded points would require a different voice. In fact, I can see it now, this film’s mirror image: Bernie Sanders in close-up, his face sweating like a giant grouper, rambling on about a bunch of commonsensical proposals for an hour and a half. And I can see myself and all my friends nodding in unison, earnestly but somewhat robotically, at what would certainly be a critical favorite, but also the single stupidest and most boring movie of the year.

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