Nobody benefited from the shocking outcome of the 2016 presidential election more than Steve Bannon, the firebrand alt-right figure who parlayed his oversight of Donald Trump’s campaign into a short-lived run as the president’s senior advisor. In Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” the filmmaker confronts Bannon about his dramatic rise, and the terrifying connotations of what it might portend for America’s future.
The movie premiered last fall at the Venice International Film Festival, and ended 2018 without U.S. distribution, landing a spot on IndieWire’s list of the best undistributed movies of the year. Now, new distributor Utopia has picked up “American Dharma” for release on November 1, and has premiered the trailer exclusively with IndieWire.
In “American Dharma,” Morris talks to Bannon about how he exploited far-right sensibilities in an evolving online ecosystem, first in his top role at Breitbart News and later with Trump, until the president dismissed him several months into his administration. Bannon also talks about the way classic films inform his worldview, from “The Searchers” to “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” as well as his side career as a propaganda filmmaker inspired by no less than Morris’ own “The Fog of War.” Much of the movie unfolds in a dreary bunker-like studio — actually an old airplane hanger — where Morris confronts Bannon about the xenophobia of his perspective and explains why he finds the alt-right movement that Bannon represents so unsettling. Morris accentuates Bannon’s apocalyptic pronouncements with a fiery cinematic conclusion.
In an interview with IndieWire last October, Morris expressed his frustration over backlash to the documentary, which largely involved questions of whether the filmmaker should have sat down with Bannon in the first place. “I could never imagine that people would say I was promoting Stephen K. Bannon or endorsing his views. That’s a surprise,” he said. “The ethics thing, to me, is not a terribly interesting argument. Sorry.” Instead, Morris said he was keen on clarifying the forces behind Trump’s election. “I felt it was horrible, what’s gone wrong in this country,” he said. “I see all the craziness afoot. I wanted to weigh in. Who are these characters?”
Morris confronts Bannon about his chaotic impact on American society. “Do you just want to destroy everything?” he asks him in the trailer.
“American Dharma” provides a striking contrast to “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s portrait of Bannon that opened earlier this year. While that movie tracks Bannon’s crippling losses as his party loses ground in the 2018 midterms, “American Dharma” provides a more alarming window into Bannon’s philosophies. In the trailer, Morris quotes John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” beginning with the quote that it’s “Better to reign in Hell…” and Bannon finishes it: ‘Than serve in Heaven.’ Love that line.”
Watch the trailer above. “American Dharma” opens in limited release on November 1.