Every time the legendary filmmaker Errol Morris cuts to a clip from a classic movie such as “Twelve O’Clock High” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or “The Searchers” in his new documentary on right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon, we celebrate the moment.
The reasons are twofold. First, it’s always a treat to see snippets of great cinema. Second, every second when Gregory Peck or John Wayne commands the screen provides relief from Bannon’s increasingly boring, repetitive dogma and his self-aggrandizing demeanor.
Given “American Dharma” is from the man who revolutionized documentary filmmaking with “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988 and has delivered powerful, hard-hitting docs about history influencers such as Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara, this is a surprisingly and disappointingly tame film, in which Morris is almost deferential to Bannon.
Much of “American Dharma” consists of Morris interviewing Bannon in a Quonset hut that looks like a replica of a set from one of Bannon’s all-time favorite movies, “Twelve O’Clock High.”
Bannon explains he’s been obsessed with this film ever since he first caught it when he was at Harvard Business School. (He likes to work in references to his admittedly impressive credentials.)
“[We see] two types of leadership — one being the touchy-feely guy, the other being Gregory Peck, who is clearly a hard-ass, but he’s not a hard-ass,” says Bannon. “He understands his dharma. He understands what he has to do. …
“Dharma is the combination of duty, fate and destiny. For ME to fulfill my dharma, I have to fulfill my duty.”
In the immortal words of Sgt. Hulka in “Stripes”: Lighten up, Francis.
Bannon has a certain rough-hewn charm; he flatters Morris by telling him seeing “The Fog of War” at the Telluride Film Festival was his own inspiration for getting into filmmaking.
Perhaps that’s why Morris offers relatively little in the way of challenging follow-up questions when Bannon bloviates ad nauseam e.g., “The reason I’m a populist [is] I’ve gone to the elite institutions … was a Navy officer … was in all the board rooms, went to Hollywood … [and] here’s what I can tell you. If if you gave me the choice between being governed by the first 100 people that show up in red ball caps at a Trump rally, vs. the first 100 guys that walk into [the] Davos [world economic forum] with their tickets, I’ll take the working-class people.”
At times the film IS riveting, as when Bannon explains how it “took a blunt force instrument” to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Bannon gloats over some of Clinton’s stumbles, as when she gave a major speech damning the alt-right fringe element movement instead of staying focused on the major issues.
“If she’s going to preach identity politics, and we preach populism and jobs, and bringing manufacturing jobs back, we’ve got it,” says Bannon. “For all their brilliance and all their money and all their professionalism, they don’t have an understanding of what this election is about. And that’s when I knew we had her.”
He’s not not right.
Bannon says he was all-in on Donald Trump responding to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape not by doing a standard, dignified, “apology tour” interview with David Muir or with “60 Minutes,” but by doubling down on the attack mode strategy by inviting a number of Bill Clinton’s accusers to the next presidential debate in St. Louis.
“So it was your idea to bring the women to the debate?” asks Morris.
“Yeah, 100 percent, yes,” responds Bannon, with pride.
Bannon seems unruffled by his fall from Trump’s favor. He comes across as someone who’s still doing an end zone victory dance even after he was cut from the team.
“People say I’m apocalyptic, I say I’m just a rationalist,” says Bannon. “I foresaw someone like Trump coming along. … This wasn’t unexpected, it was as clear as daylight.”
When Morris does challenge Bannon, telling him he felt the travel ban on Muslims was “inherently racist,” we see a shot of Bannon nodding, but we don’t hear a rebuttal or for that matter a response of any kind. It’s one of far too many underwhelming exchanges.
It’s too bad Morris didn’t conclude the film by showing a clip from another great movie: “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford’s superficial and utterly unqualified but TV-friendly contender scores an upset victory and becomes a U.S. senator. In the final scene, Redford’s Bill McKay says to his chief political campaign operative: “What do we do now?”
The answer never comes, just as Bannon never fully addresses his feelings about the state of the country and the world since his man was given the keys to the Oval Office.