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The Flawed Premise of Errol Morris’ ‘American Dharma’ Forces Us to Ask What We Need from Cinema at this Moment in History

"American Dharma" is not what we need it to be, but it does ask us to question what we need from cinema at this moment in our history.

“American Dharma”

The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.

The appeal of a film like “American Dharma,” Errol Morris’s new documentary on Steve Bannon is obvious in many ways. Aside from the valid (if excusatory) arguments some may have against subjecting themselves to a film about one of the figures responsible for making the alt-right palatably mainstream  — aren’t things depressing enough!? — we are still bound by an irrefutable desire to see notorious and nefarious people flounder on screen. It taps into a voyeuristic thrill; a deeply human intrigue with the morbid. It is one thing to speak of this in relation to fiction film, but it becomes far more complex in documentary cinema,a mode inextricably enmeshed with questions of ethics and veracity, and burdened by a specific kind of artistic responsibility.

In that light, one would hope that a documentary as timely as “American Dharma” has a deeper intention than simply exploring the repugnant. While the thought of Bannon under rigorous interrogation, exposed like a vulnerable organ mid-transplant, is exciting and nauseating in equal measure, a new and important work from a master like Morris promises a greater depth of meaning for its audience. Morris has never shied away from confronting difficult characters and topics in his films; in fact, the director seems to relish exploring what other filmmakers might find unassailable.

Tackling Bannon—the former chairman of Breitbart News and the late White House Chief Strategist under the Trump administration—epitomizes this endeavor. One of cinema’s essential duties is to allow us see the world and our position within it from a different vantage point. “American Dharma” sets us up to believe we will be empowered to see and think in new and more meaningful ways about our current moment. And it fails us.

As with “The Fog of War” (2003) and “The Unknown Known” (2013), “American Dharma” plays out as an intimate interview, a tȇte-à-tȇte between Morris and Bannon, in which “Triumph of the Will”-esque low camera angles immediately lend the film a theatrical and fascistic aesthetic. We are introduced to a disheveled Bannon on an outdoor, barren set—lone antihero or lonely outsider, read it as you will—and the entire film is established as a well-coordinated performance. The setting where the interview takes place, styled like a corrugated military hut, evokes detachment, isolation and discomfort. But if this ascetic environment is supposed to force Bannon into a position of vulnerabilityor uneaseit misses entirely.

Morris’s approach is to allow Bannon to espouse his own nonsense, his rhetoric of emptiness; to offer him a meager stage on which he will ultimately act out a failed performance. Yet Bannon is first and foremost a master of performance. Even in the sparing moments when Morris appears to back Bannon into a corner—most notably when he highlights the irony of Bannon rallying the anti-establishment voters to elect a “Fuck you”, anti-populist president—Bannon falters only momentarily, refusing to rise to the challenge. He goes mute instead, playing the waiting game, acutely aware he is on a stage that suits him well; one on which showmanship has proven devastatingly adept at eclipsing logic.

Bannon is comfortable in these wanting surroundings, unfazed by the rudimentary (although no less symbolic) mise-en-scène in which he figures as the most dominant and dominating presence. Frequent visual asides to scenes from some of his favorite old Hollywood films become the cornerstone for Bannon’s own rambling self-mythification. It is deeply unsettling and isolating for an audience to listen as Bannon writes his own narrative over these canonical Westerns, which themselves already bear the weight of a disfigured and racist history. In the end, the viewer is the one who loses here; the feeling of distanciation — of being left out of the conversation — is palpable and persistent.

Errol Morris'American Dharma' photocall, 75th Venice International Film Festival, Italy - 05 Sep 2018

Errol Morris
‘American Dharma’ photocall, 75th Venice International Film Festival, Italy – 05 Sep 2018

Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

The film’s aesthetic of violence—the image and sound of objects breaking, the hut aflame, the repetitive, almost unrelenting allusions to militarism (including Bannon’s own attire)—blends with a Shakespearean-like character study of Bannon, and essentially provides him with a platform on which he appears all too at ease. Bannon positions himself amongst cinema’s lineage of antiheroes; a self-appointed purveyor of history, and an emblem of its terrifying cyclicality. Morris’s aesthetic approach plays into this game of male-myth-making, so as form not only mirrors content, but also becomes clumsily entangled with it. “American Dharma” feels morally dubious in both subject and form, and owes so much more to its audience.

A similarly themed documentary also screening at this year’s NYFF is Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Following the life of the disgraced, conservative media mogul in strict chronology from Ailes’ childhood through to his deposition at Fox News and recent death, the film uses an unwaveringly conventional (and thus entirely watchable) approach to documentary filmmaking. Both documentaries probe at the damage inflicted on modern America through two of its most influential, right-wing players. While the films negotiate the documentary form in different ways, both feel similarly deficient in spirit and intent given the pertinence of their subject matter.

“Divide and Conquer” delivers a meticulously structured narrative around Ailes’s life and career (and its grotesque impact upon a litany of victims), but it does little else beyond navigating the conventional tropes of the documentary form. In “American Dharma,” Morris attempts something brave and provocative, but it falls short because the film offers no new meaning to fill the void of unreason, and thus fails on a deeper, ethical level.

Our current moment is in perpetual, destabilizing flux and we need to feel empowered as viewers to begin making sense of our environment. There is no need to clutter this confusion with information we already know, or to waste our time on dogmas that already hound us. Ignoring such an unabating force as Bannon is not the answer, and Morris has attempted something bold, and in part necessary, by confronting him on screen. But the conversation has to be bigger than two men on an austere stage, talking in circles around each other.

Neither “Divide and Conquer” nor “American Dharma” provide any profound understanding or insight into the chaos and trauma that prevails, but they do succeed in sparking thought about the urgency with which we must find a new and emboldened means of interrogating our current socio-political situation. These films are a reminder that we need cinema, now more than ever, to be both daring and deeply attuned to its audiences. What shape that may take is undoubtedly manifold and complex, but it must be something that speaks to us and of us, not for us.

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