It’s impossible to find someone with any knowledge of who Steve Bannon is that doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. Either you hate him and think he’s evil, or you believe he’s the brains behind a populist revolution. Whether he’s vile or a truth teller, you aren’t indifferent to him. As such, the documentary “American Dharma” winds up in an odd spot. Playing at the New York Film Festival, the movie refuses to demonize him. Instead, Bannon’s own words are given a stage, front and center. On the one hand, he sounds crazy. On the other, he goes about saying crazy things in a sane way. Frankly, if you hate Bannon, you’ll think he’s a loon here. If you love him, you’ll think he comes off pretty well in the doc.
Filmmaker Errol Morris wants “American Dharma” to be in the same vein as “The Fog of War,” just with Bannon instead of Robert McNamara. Unfortunately, while that documentary saw a compelling debate, this is less that. Either Morris wasn’t able to engage with Bannon or wasn’t willing, but he too often cedes the momentum to the former head of Breitbart and Donald Trump advisor. That makes for a more evenhanded doc than expected, but also a less satisfying one.
Bannon and Morris sit at a table and talk. The table is within a quonset hut, one modeled after “Twelve O’Clock High,” a favorite film of Bannon’s. They talk about how Steven K. Bannon went from a military man to a banker, then a filmmaker/Hollywood player, before getting into politics. Under the tutelage of Andrew Breitbart, he helped break the Anthony Weiner story, before eventually ending up helping Donald Trump get elected. While Morris occasionally pushes back on Bannon’s worldview, a lot of this is just letting him speak. The founder of the modern Alt-Right movement is so sure of his views, he’s all too eager to filibuster about them.
If you knew nothing about Bannon, “American Dharma” wouldn’t quite give you the whole picture of who he is. He professes to not care for white nationalists, but evidence on screen points to the contrary. Still, Morris never hammers him on it. As an act of non-fiction, it’s fairly disappointing. Bannon clearly thinks of himself as a man of the people, crusading for the little guy. That’s debatable, but unfortunately, that debate is only glossed over here.
The most frustrating part of “American Dharma” is that Morris lets Bannon off too easily. When he critiques him, Bannon either doesn’t respond or ducks the questions. When Bannon talks about being for the little guy, Morris asks how that gels with his yearning for massive deregulation. This goes nowhere. That happens time and again when Morris actually pushes back. It ends up feeling less like what Morris hoped for and more like what Bannon was likely hoping for. There isn’t even much about his work under Trump, or his exit from the White House. It’s another missed opportunity in a documentary with many of them.
The audience at NYFF is an unusual one for this movie. The film doesn’t provide red meat for liberals, even if it’s hardly a conservative-leaning doc. Again, Bannon fans may actually like this, but that’s not the intent. It’s an interesting doc, just not one that I’m fully able to recommend. As a festival entry though, it definitely stands out. You just leave it wishing Morris had gone on the offensive, instead of sitting back and letting a dangerous man run the show.