By Jonathon Norcross
(in Indian religion) the eternal and inherent nature of reality, regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order.
Errol Morris’ portrait of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is about as close to an apocalyptic horror story as you’re likely to find in nonfiction filmmaking. It fully immerses its audience in Bannon’s mind, which is preoccupied with thoughts of war, carnage, and the coming downfall of American society. Whether Bannon is the agent of this doom or merely predicting it is, to me, the central question of this spellbinding film.
American Dharma was probably the least successful of Morris’ recent projects. After making its world premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, it struggled to find distribution for a whole year until it was picked up by the newly-formed company Utopia. The film’s reception was cool, with some critics alleging that Morris missed an opportunity to more aggressively challenge Bannon, while others criticized Morris for making the film at all. That reaction is perhaps understandable in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, which was a traumatic event for American liberals and still relatively fresh in the audience’s mind at the time of the film’s premiere. Viewed today, in the midst of rising unemployment and crime, economic despair, civic unrest, and of course a global pandemic, it is harder not to see glimpses of truth in Bannon’s worldview. However cynical he may be, however perpetually prepared for combat, current events seem to validate some of his doomsday prophecies.
Of course, many will argue that Bannon’s efforts to elect Donald Trump contributed to, if not outright caused, the continued hardships faced by millions of Americans. Have Trump’s Bannon-backed promises come true? Have manufacturing jobs returned? Did the president strike a deal with Democrats to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure? Has Mexico picked up the tab for that border wall yet?
The audience’s reaction to Bannon will of course be polarized but to completely dismiss his ideas or to ignore his influence on American politics is folly. To that end, Morris allows Bannon to clearly express himself. Bannon’s interviews are set in a constructed replica of the Quonset hut from the 1949 war film Twelve O’Clock High, one of his favorites. In this war zone, Bannon cites classic films such as The Searchers and Paths of Glory as offering profound lessons about life and American history. In Bannon’s telling, Paths of Glory depicts Trump’s “deplorables” in the trenches with mud-stained boots surrounded by scurrying rats while the high-born “elites” sit comfortably in their palaces. In Bannon’s eyes, the “deplorables” of America face unemployment, poverty, and misery, while the liberal media elites scold them for being racist and sexist. In retaliation and on behalf of these wretched souls, Bannon issued the unrepentant “f**k the establishment” marching orders that mobilized a new faction of the American right and swept Trump into office. Nobody saw it coming, except of course for Steve Bannon, who seems to delight in the chaos he wrought.
As Bannon speaks to Morris at a desk in the Quonset hut, the rumbling, earth-shaking score by Paul Leonard-Morgan feels like it’s rattling the walls. Bannon’s constant pounding of the desk as he rails against “the elites” sounds like bombs going off. This intensity builds throughout the interview until Bannon departs at the end of the film and the entire hut is set ablaze, turning to wreckage. As we stare into the flames, we are compelled to wonder: did Bannon bring this destruction or is it just American Dharma come to fruition?