Nearly 14 months have passed since “American Dharma,” the director Errol Morris’s sidelong study of the former Trump White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. In February, the filmmaker took to Twitter to express indignation that the movie was taking so long to reach theaters.
The objections to the movie are easy to understand. It gives a platform to a man charged with abetting the spread of hate. (While Bannon repeatedly dismisses the notion that xenophobia plays a part in his politics, Morris makes clear that he hasn’t exactly discouraged the label, either. In a clip, Bannon tells far-right politicians in France to wear being called racist as a “badge of honor.”)
Bannon already has a tendency to self-mythologize, and elevating him in a documentary helps reinforce the idea that he is a political mastermind, as opposed to a fringe figure who may have gotten lucky in one election. And Morris does not push back as aggressively as he might have on Bannon’s assertions. (More typically, he intersperses news pieces and headlines to counter Bannon’s words.)
To those who view Bannon’s simple presence before a camera as offensive, no movie about him would be worth seeing. For those eager to watch him look like a fool, Alison Klayman’s “The Brink,” a fly-on-the-wall portrait released in March, gives him more rope to hang himself. But anyone demanding that Morris’s movie end with Bannon’s head on a spike ignores that Morris rarely approaches a topic from the expected angle.
“American Dharma” continues a thread that he has explored for the last two decades. Like “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” (1999), “Standard Operating Procedure” (2008) and “The Unknown Known” (2014), the Bannon film is a study in rationalization, a portrait of a man who bends the world to his philosophy, assimilating or shutting out contradictory evidence. Viewers may laugh at the moment when Bannon learns that Morris voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. “Oh my God, you just crushed me,” he says. He expresses shock that the director of “The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known” would make that choice. That Morris is not a Bernie Sanders (or Trump) supporter should be no surprise, but part of his point may be that Bannon appears unwilling to comprehend that.
Bannon has made documentaries himself (although his style trends toward crude agitprop rather than anything artistic) and regards Morris as an inspiration. Morris meets him on equal terms, sitting down with him for their conversations rather than, as is his custom, interviewing him through a video image. They talk in an aircraft hangar, an aesthetic choice that suits both Bannon’s military background and the movies the two men discuss.
Morris’s fixation on Bannon the film buff might seem trivial, but Bannon’s views on cinema say something about how he interprets the world. He admires Gregory Peck’s tough-guy leadership in the World War II bomber film “Twelve O’Clock High,” even though the character is shown to be under inhuman strain at the end. Bannon likens his exit from the Trump White House in 2017 to Henry V’s ouster of Falstaff in Orson Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” — regarding Falstaff’s banishment as an affirmation of the “natural order of things,” and not, as Occam’s razor might suggest, a betrayal.
Bannon’s interest in alternate realities, as presented onscreen, in video games or in cyberspace, becomes a recurring theme. In a revealing moment, he suggests that the comments section at Breitbart became more of a community for its contributors than the actual cities they lived in.
Even so, Morris prods Bannon on the scrims he has erected for himself. How can a professed populist demonize immigrants? How does someone who rails against government corruption, or elites at Davos, support Trump, whom critics would argue embodies many values that Bannon claims to loathe? What does Bannon mean when he says a revolution is coming, and why is his thinking so apocalyptic?
As with Donald Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known,” Morris never really cracks his subject, and perhaps it’s facile to deem the project worthwhile in spite of that. Certainly, “American Dharma” offers no comfort to those disturbed by Bannon or harmed by the policies he has pressed for. But Morris wants to map how Bannon thinks. The movie he has made is less an act of muckraking than it is a psychological thriller, with Bannon its implacable villain.
Rated R. Intimations of apocalypse. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.