The second in a line of documentaries just this year about Stephen K. Bannon, “American Dharma,” like its predecessor, “The Brink,” will succeed or fail to audiences according to how much they feel like its director demystifies the right-wing political strategist, or perhaps holds his feet to the fire.
Where Alison Klayman’s film was anecdotal and intimate, letting Bannon hang himself with his arrogant disingenuousness, Errol Morris’ feels more intellectually rigorous — a mutually respectful interrogation that, by comparison, may not come across strongly enough to some as an indictment.
Nevertheless, Morris’ pedigree remains undiminished as he digs into Bannon’s early inspirations and current worldview for a suitably upsetting if more impressionistic look at his demonstrably harmful views.
“Dharma is the combination of duty, fate, and destiny,” Bannon argues in the film’s opening scene. A huge fan of the World War II film “Twelve O’Clock High,” starring Gregory Peck — which is evidently mandatory viewing at Harvard Business School — Bannon established his priorities early: maximization of shareholder value and absolute destruction of one’s enemies. One has immediate meaning, and the other doesn’t, at least not if you haven’t seen “Twelve O’Clock High,” but Morris frames his questioning conversation in recreated sets from the film and attempts to tap into the deeper meanings and motivations that drive Bannon, after having built an empire of dishonestly populist values that propelled Donald Trump into office.
Their chat sometimes feels more like Morris, the professor, prompting a student to defend his thesis — confrontational but not unkind, which is a tone that many of Bannon’s critics will find objectionable. Morris, thankfully, has more than enough intellectual capacity to dismantle some of his arguments, if not to Bannon’s face, then at least via news footage that undercuts the sincerity of his rallying cry for the working class he was never a real part of.
But the question-and-answer structure of the film, at least in comparison to “The Brink,” doesn’t quite as effectively showcase the incongruous elements and outright phoniness of Bannon’s belief system. Klayman gave Bannon, who clearly believed the film was an infomercial whose message he could shape, enough rope to hang himself. With “American Dharma,” Morris’ occasional incredulity does not form as strong of a counterpoint to Bannon’s arguments, instead drawing connections either more nuanced or flat-out unspecific between rhetoric and reality.
Cinematically, Morris’ film eclipses Klayman’s, but they have conspicuously different aims. Morris is not just a veteran documentarian but also a true luminary whose sense of visual construction and recurring motifs becomes an essential part of his storytelling — informational and thematic reinforcement all at once. But even as the filmmaker neatly climaxes his visual framework with images of this booming hangar, the setting for their interview and a key location from “Twelve O’Clock High,” going up in flames, Morris seems to search for a more definitive moment of closure for his interview, and his definition of Bannon.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to find it — or, at least, “he’s a monster who wants to destroy the world” seems less like a destination than a restatement of his starting point — which may account for why the film struggled to find distribution: It was not clear enough in its condemnation of a man who deserves to be condemned.
To be fair, that’s a quandary that’s not Morris’ responsibility to resolve, whether it’s better to humanize and demystify these individuals we vilify, or simply to present their perceived or actual crimes and let them be defined by them. But seeking to understand an individual who in this case lacks a true sense of honesty about himself — beautifully evidenced in “The Brink” when Bannon is actively called out for espousing racist beliefs — becomes alternately a fool’s errand or an exercise in futility, making Morris’ efforts feel at least ambivalent if not conciliatory to Bannon when his subject is making unanswered claims, such as that neo-Nazis are a creation of the mainstream media, and aligning himself with a proletariat he clearly looks at merely as rhetorical ammunition.
Most upsettingly, Bannon repeatedly predicts an uprising, a violent revolution, that never gets fully explained or sufficiently examined by Morris, and it’s this ominous declaration that brings their conversation to its close. What is indisputable is Bannon’s understanding of political machinery and his sociopathic aptitude for capitalizing on seemingly imperceptible moments of strategic vulnerability; where, then, are the questions about his true beliefs, or at least his assumed responsibility for fomenting the destructive energies he says are leading to revolt?
Is he merely announcing its inevitability? Or tipping his hat at what he’s engineering next? Maybe even Bannon doesn’t quite know. But if Morris doesn’t either, it feels like he and his film should arrive at a greater comprehension of what that difference is — if any — by the end.
Ultimately, audiences will have to decide for themselves whether they want villains like Bannon exposed or merely deconstructed. But either way, “American Dharma” unfortunately brings its audience only to the brink of real discovery.