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Review: "American Dharma" Is Errol Morris’ Gambit in an Game of Political Chess

After making interview documentaries with Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris turns to an emblem of the Trump presidency.
Yaron Dahan
Errol Morris’ filmed discussion with Steve Bannon, the notorious Trump counselor, is based on a simple premise: a game of wits with the adversary seated across the table, metonym for the ideological divide that separates filmmaker and kingmaker. Morris, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, knows his audience and himself, but is honest enough a filmmaker to give his adversary a sporting chance. Although much censured for having given the right-wing orator a platform, American Dharma is not so easily dismissed, as it demands of the viewer to listen, just like the interview must have demanded of Errol Morris to listen. Given that many of the critiques against American Dharma materialize from the same snobbish and dismissive perspective that dismissed the neglected base that nonetheless democratically elected Trump, one can only be grateful for an opportunity to listen, as dangerous as a game that may sometimes be.  
Lest Bannon’s critics be too dismissive of the man, it would be good to remember that in the zero-sum game of American politics, it was the conservative newsmaker who nimbly activated the Trump base that eventually, and democratically, beat out the Democrat front-runner; a base some of whose ideas, claims and complaints are close to Morris’ concerns: he calls the Bannon who cares about the average guy the “good Bannon,” in contrast to the frothing-at-the-mouth xenophobia of the “bad Bannon.” Ultimately, Errol Morris seems to understand that it is only by listening that one can understand one’s opponent and size him up in order to generate comprehension, and perhaps even counter-strategies. 
The impetus for American Dharma seems to have been a mutual respect, even mutual attraction, Morris and Bannon share for each other. Bannon has only praise for Morris’ The Fog of War (2003), which fits in well with his isolationist ideology, and, as American Dharma will reveal, Morris has a grudging respect for Bannon.  
Near the film’s start, Morris compares Bannon to the Adversary of Milton’s Paradise Lost, quoting the most prominent of all Milton’s lines: “Better to reign in hell...,” Morris begins, a line which Bannon quickly completes with a chuckle: “ ... than serve in heaven.” Bannon and Morris may represent two sides of a political spectrum, but in American Dharma thesides” resemble each other more than one would think in their concern and interest in the underdog, the neglected, the humiliated. And both characters of both sides of the table are submerged in the common cultural morass of cinema and literature, which ignites their verbal jousting over the mock war table at which they sit. From the get-go, the film is constructed as such so that the viewer wishes to root against Bannon, yet when Morris half-jokingly calls out the “bad Bannon” as a sort of Milton’s Satan, Bannon astutely remarks that it was Satan and not God who was Milton’s hero, and this retort will set the baseline for the rest of the documentary.
Much of the dismissive criticism of both the film and its main character is based on a rigid perspective that would rather gloss Bannon’s evident on-screen charm. As will become clear throughout Morris’ portrait, Steve Bannon, who is indeed as silver-tongued as Milton’s devil, understands power, understands narrative, understands political strategy, and the manipulation thereof is what makes him both valuable and dangerous as an advisor. American Dharma lays bare the tactics of how Bannon exploits basic narratives of mass appeal that classical and modern Hollywood recycles ad infinitum—the power of devotion and sacrifice, the faith in leadership, the belief in hard choices, the determination towards civic duty—to attain his goals. 
If Bannon, a die-hard fan of the classic Hollywood hero, learned one thing as a right-wing film producer (he worked on a pro-Reagan documentary whose purpose was to rehabilitate and re-forge Reagan’s legend) it is that narrative trumps truth (pun intended). The influence of cinema on the real, of the media image on politics, is palpable as Morris screens a half-dozen of Bannon’s favorite films throughout American Dharma. The documentary’s touchtone film citation is taken from Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949), a Bannon favorite, starring a stern-chinned and “badass” Gregory Peck in all his heroic glory. Morris plays along with the image-making by not only showing film clips on-screen, but even shooting the Bannon interview in a mockup of the Quonset Hut, where Twelve O’Clock High’s flight crew meetings took place. Bannon, rough-shaven, jovial, and corpulent, sits across from Morris’ camera, watching his favorite films without (almost) ever losing control of the story he is spinning. And spin he does. In a curiously revealing moment in American Dharma Bannon and Morris are exchanging a fiery repartee, when suddenly a tape is knocked off the table with a loud clatter. Bannon, eying Morris’ camera slyly, comments, “that was a good effect,” as if the tape crashed to the floor at that precise moment as if he had orchestrated its fall to prove his point. 
If there is one takeaway from the American Dharma it is that Morris’ adversary is a master rhetorician, in the classic Aristotelian sense. Bannon knows the difference between thought and message; he know how to adapt his language to his audience; he knows how to use all the devices of classical rhetoric; he has mastered all three conditions of Aristotle’s guide: ethos, pathos, and logos. In fact, much of Bannon’s playbook is to be found in Ars Rhetorica: from firing up a base by exploiting an  “anger resulting from feelings of belittlement” to “relying on emotional logic” in order to move his audience. And throughout the film Bannon makes ample use of the two primary rhetorical devices—paradigm and syllogism—to convince and cajole. As a paradigm of the “exploitation of the American worker” Bannon tells a tale about having visited his daughter in military academy and discovering that the uniforms were made in Vietnam. “Vietnam!” he decries, with outrage, projecting the assumption that Vietnam should be considered by every American as some eternal enemy (or at the very least, exploiting that classical narrative of enmity).
Or later in the film, Bannon espouses a right-wing enthymeme: Foreigners need to be denied entry because Americans don’t have enough good jobs, goes the logic. A statement which conveniently glosses over the unstated premise that “foreigners are the ones responsible for taking American jobs.” The effect of such a syllogism in a political argument is to sweep the assumption under the carpet, getting the audience to concede to ideology, by pretending the assumptions are givens. It is a logical structure which obviates other possible major causes of the flight of American jobs:  the corporate tax loopholes which allowed, even encouraged American companies to export work; the lack of worker’s rights which makes it easy to do so; the influence of corporate money on politics which coerced politicians too overlook the damage for far too long.
And this rhetoric is very effective. Not for nothing did Bannon’s speech-making lead to electoral victory, for such rhetoric is based in justified criticisms. Out of Bannon’s three stated major political goals: Stop mass illegal migration; bring jobs back to the U.S.; stop war spending—at least the last two are shared by a progressive left. And it takes an understanding and then deconstruction of this rhetoric to make it clear that the Bannon-Trump one-stop argument “Stop illegal immigration” is a symptomatic proposal, a power bid designed to exploit unrest. But such deconstruction never takes place explicitly in American Dharma.
Bannon’s critique of a political elite out-of-touch with reality seems entirely justified. We hear him pontificate against the Harvard-bred idea of the arbitrary economic unit (detached from all value) as the ideological basis which allowed American corporations to ship jobs abroad. It is the business and academic elite which has concocted a philosophy of jobs as nothing more than “numbers on a sheet” rather than seeing in them powerful industries, knowledge, workers, families, he reasons, and with sense. 
If the Bannon-character is dangerous, it is in fact, just like Milton’s devil, that he speaks not in lies, but in half-truths. The problem of an elitist class of out-of-touch career politicians may be just, but is in fact separate from either a political party or ideology. After all, Harvard produced an Obama just as easily as it did a George W. Bush or Steve Bannon. If anything, it is the same political elite on all sides, educated in the same institutions, which has avariciously accepted hundreds of millions of what can only be called bribes from corporate interests.
Yes, American Dharma feels at time as if it gives a platform to someone whose discourse can be dangerous, yet Morris’ film also reveals much about his opponent. Errol Morris draws out a remarkable candidness from Bannon in divulging his strategies and tactics. Bannon practically gloats on-screen at his most adept moves from his political playbook, revealing, for example, how Breitbart orchestrated the political demise of the popular Democrat firebrand Anthony Wiener, through a scandal concocted around a dick pic. Or, he recounts the deftly executed move-by-move smoke and mirrors tactics he used to deflect media attention from Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment on the Access Hollywood tape by arranging Bill Clinton’s four accusers in front-row VIP seats during a presidential debate.
Understanding these tactics allows one to better understand why a minor infraction like a dick pic (Wiener) or an aggressive come-on (Franken) can end a Democrat’s career, but a series of extra-marital affairs (Trump), or an outright attempted rape accusation (Kavanaugh) flows off Republican candidates like water off oil.  It is because of tactics: Bannon directs his presidential candidate to generate a narrative of strength by not apologizing; by doubling down on every bet; by denying every accusation. These are tactics which exploit an inherent political weakness of the Democrats who have the unenviable position of playing the self-righteous moralist in the Republican-concocted culture wars, and who are willing to sacrifice the savvy and quick-witted Franken to bolster an image which would only come off as sanctimonious. Perhaps the lesson to learn, the lesson which Morris’ film only implies, is that if Bannon is right about one thing, it is this: politics is indeed war, war in which victory supersedes all other considerations.
In truth, Morris’ film is often discomforting, and arouses some hard-to-answer questions: What did Errol Morris intend? Why did he acquiesce to conduct the chat with Bannon in a mockup of a military hangar? Why have the Quonset Hut go up in flames—a gleeful image of destruction (reminiscent of the Reichstag fire)—when it is obviously an image that confers power? And most of all: Why did he allow himself to lose? 
For there is no doubt that in this head-to-head match of wits, Bannon comes out the winner. But why would Errol Morris allow Bannon to exit victorious? Out of a desire to show the other perspective? Journalistic integrity? Because Morris really lost and wasn’t aware of it?  Especially thorny questions when considering that in cinema, he who controls the edit controls the narrative. 
Perhaps there is something in American Dharma that contains a measure of penance from Morris, a bit of buyer’s remorse, evoked in a touchy moment in which Bannon bluntly provokes Morris, who admits to having voted for Hillary: “How could you possibly vote for Hillary Clinton?!” Bannon declaims, incredulous that anyone could have. And indeed, every video of Hillary that Morris edits into American Dharma only drives home how stiff, uncomprehending, elitist, and privileged a candidate she appeared: a truly weak presidential contender supported by a party who renounced on a far better option, banking solely on the Clinton brand and the money it could bring into the war chests for salvation against an opponent who they belittled at much as his base. As Morris sheepishly admits to Bannon (seemingly apologizing for all his counterparts), he voted for Hillary because he was afraid. Bannon places Morris in rhetorical check, and Morris concedes defeat. 
Yet it would unfair to Morris to say that American Dharma comes away empty-handed. Although on film Bannon is far too sly and careful to be caught out by his liberal counterpart, there hangs in the hangar a pervading sense of glib lies and sinuous half-truths.  
In a telling moment, Bannon is barely believable when he denies the racism of the Trump base, given that there are enough videos of him stoking those flames, even if he is sly enough to leave enough space for plausible deniability. And that is the name of the game—plausible deniability—in which things are insinuated that are entirely comprehensible by all, albeit never stated.  
American Dharma never really gets to the deconstruction of its protagonist, but at least Morris provides enough material to begin the work of deconstruction, necessary to expose the flaws and fissures in Bannon’s fluid rhetoric, even if Morris does not exactly do it himself. 
For all Bannon’s talk of anti-elitism, which he may even believe himself to be, American Dharma reveals Bannon’s elitist background to be ingrained in his thought process if not in his ideology. It is hard to believe that an ex-investment banker, Naval officer, and Harvard MBA grad could renounce upon his formation even if he wanted to. And Bannon uses many rhetorical tactics to distance himself from his education, calling the elitists “they,” intending to remove himself from a group to which in fact belongs. Case in point in American Dharma: Bannon, all while criticizing Harvard for creating the idea of maximizing the value of the economic unit, later rehashes the selfsame concept into an idea of “maximizing the value of your citizenship.” To be fair, Bannon does seem to harbor a genuine disdain for the elite circles from which he comes, but he equally seems to be blind to the fact that he is only reproducing the same elitist ideology, for the purposes of taking control. 
In another barely believable moment, Bannon tells a story of Trump wanting to make peace with “the liberal media” after having won the presidential election, and spins a story of Trump being the victim of an unfair media, by being called a racist. As if the Trump campaign had not been stoking the race card as a backbone of his campaign (to be fair, once again, no different than the Republicans have been doing for the last two decades). 
Upon closer inspection, Bannon’s stories begin to unravel. The key narrative he tells at the film’s start of the visit to his daughter’s class in military school, and his outrage at seeing the “made-in-Vietnam” works because superficially it makes sense. Perhaps Bannon’s patriotic outrage is genuine, and likely, yes, job outsourcing has gone too far, but against what is the outrage directed? Against an undeveloped foreign land with a GDP 1/100th the size of America, whose populace the U.S. military bombed for little more than ideology and political expediency? Or is his outrage based on the fact that the people of this tiny country which fought for its independence (even if that independence was communist) now make clothing for the American market at lower wages that enters the market easily thanks to lax corporate regulation and gaping tax loopholes?
There is no denying that a talented and tricky rhetorician who can sell the story of  “draining a swamp” by using a crocodile, and who can re-bundle a failed tycoon famous for mocking the poor as a champion of the down-trodden, is an adversary to be wary of. And this is, more than anything else, the lesson of Morris’ film. 
In the near-final scene of American Dharma, even in the story of his own exile, Bannon is able to exit offstage with a measure of grace. In recalling his removal from the White House, Morris shows Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965), and Bannon compares himself to Henry V’s advisor, Fallstaff. As Bannon watches the film on-screen in the Quonset Hut, he compares himself to the loyal advisor, and bleary-eyed, weaves a tale of the self-sacrifice necessary in order to make way for the king after his coronation. Yet, after one and a half hours of listening to Bannon, the viewer would be wise to hold in reserve a measure of doubt whether this is a sacrifice that Bannon would prefer not to have made. After all, Bannon must have had some immanent sense of his own dethroning, as the White House has only enough space for a single power, and it should come to no one’s surprise that his egotistical candidate chose it for his own self. And even as Bannon flinches before the poignant scene of bearded Falstaff’s departure, one gets the sense that in constructing his own narrative of loyal follower who is betrayed, he is already plotting a return. Should this ever happen, perhaps American Dharma will serve as a lesson and example.


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