It’s true for all of us, to one degree or another, that we exist in a sort of information bubble when it comes to news, politics, current events and more. With so much information to consume in order to stay up to date, it’s entirely understandable that we limit the number of sources we rely on. Layer on top of that our natural tendency to be drawn to what already aligns with our world view (confirmation bias, it’s called) and it takes real effort to expose ourselves to opinions and perspectives that differ from our own. Such considerations were top of mind as I watched documentarian Errol Morris’s latest film, American Dharma, a profile piece on former White House adviser Steve Bannon. See it as an opportunity to hear the other side’s point of view, I told myself. Stay open minded, I told myself. See what happens, I told myself.
A little over 90 minutes later, and I can confidently confirm that my impression of Bannon (and his ilk) before the film, informed as it is by “mainstream” media, didn’t change all that much by the time it ended: he is a dangerous provocateur whose worldview is so backwards that his inhabiting any position of power or influence is a risk to us all. Morris sets the film up as a conversation of sorts between filmmaker and subject (who we learn in time are also a version of “friends” I don’t entirely understand); we hear Morris posing questions and, to a very small degree, pushing back on Bannon’s non-answers to questions about decisions and policies he influenced during both the Trump campaign and administration. Bannon shares his backstory as a means of filling in the blanks on a man many likely only know from his headline-grabbing time in politics. From working as a newspaper delivery boy to a stint in the Navy, graduating from Harvard Business School, dipping a toe into film producing and eventually taking over Breitbart News, everything in Bannon’s history seems to be queuing him up for his most controversial role yet: orchestrating the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
Using as a framework the old Western films that inspire Bannon (John Wayne and his alpha-male machismo feature heavily), referencing the various scenes and actors who project the strength and worldview he values. Though Morris gets a bit heavy-handed with the imagery in order to drive these points home, it nevertheless becomes clear just how narrow Bannon’s outlook is, an approach to the world that thinks itself sane but, if explored a bit deeper, falls apart all too easily. Morris gets credit for the space he gives his subject to have his say; it can’t be said that the filmmaker pushes the viewer to any single takeaway on one side of the aisle or another. Bannon does that all on his own, all while never quite articulating what exactly he’s aiming for in this grand vision of his; rather, he spends all his time bloviating about what’s wrong or broken or unfair. When confronted with the truly disgusting ripple effects of his work (an increase in hate crimes, a rise in White Nationalism, and on and on), he deflects in a way that is as disturbing as it is unsettling. It makes one wonder if, deep down, he knows exactly the extent of the damage he’s doing.
Morris is an Oscar-winning filmmaker (The Fog of War) who knows his way around a narrative, and he makes no bones about the crafting he’s done in American Dharma to make it both undeniably interesting and unsurprisingly icky. He isn’t even the first filmmaker to explore Bannon’s motivations and backstory this year; Alison Klayman’s The Brink premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and, though vastly different in its filmmaking approach, also attempts to understand a man who confounds many of us. Whether or not American Dharma is worth your time is ultimately up to you and whether you enjoy giving space in your life to controversial figures. There’s of course the case to be made that films like this, ones that so oppose our existing outlooks, are inherently valuable in expanding one’s perspective. And perhaps that’s true for other films. All this one does is confirm what we already know about the dangers of populism and those who promote it.
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