“American Dharma” Bum: The New Errol Morris Film on Steve Bannon Gets a Cold Shoulder

Lock him in! Lock him in! The Quonset hut at the closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Photo by Rick Ouellette

I took the photographs in this post on January 2, 2017—after the election but before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The building in the picture above was one of the sites where Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris interviewed former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the subject of his new film called “American Dharma.” It was a sort of stage set up for Bannon, who first rose to prominence (or infamy, as many of us would have it) as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the alt-right, conspiracy-mongering website that is a favorite of the gullible current occupant of the White House.

A feature story in the arts section of the January 25th Boston Globe pointed out that the much-celebrated Morris has not found a distributor for the film, which has yet to see the light of day since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year. (There will be a screening at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center on Feb. 1st, just down the way from where Morris has his office). Part of the problem, might be in the blasé attitude that would let Morris indulge the highly controversial Bannon by having him blab away in the hut which resembles the one in his favorite World War II movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” For Morris, the WW2 film title that probably best sums up his problems with his new documentary is “A Bridge Too Far.”


When I posted this photo of abandoned housing in early January of 2017, a friend wondered if it were a preview of “post-Trump America.”

That’s because “American Dharma” can be seen as the third entry in a loose trilogy of Errol Morris films about contentious men who were Presidential advisers or Cabinet secretaries: and they can also be seen as offering diminishing returns on the director’s artistic investment. (Like most people, I haven’t seen “American Dharma” and this post is about the idea of doing it in the first place). The first, 2003’s “The Fog of War,” was about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ten years later, Morris came out with “The Unknown Known” about the longtime Republican operator Donald Rumsfeld, who first came to the national spotlight as chief of staff and defense secretary in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford and, of course, held that latter position under George W. Bush during the calamitous invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s.

“The Fog of War” was an exceptional, riveting film that deservedly won Morris an Oscar for best feature documentary, an award that many thought he should have received fifteen years earlier for “The Thin Blue Line.” Robert McNamara was born in 1916 and in an early scene he tells of his first memory, watching victorious American soldiers in a parade after the end of World War I. Morris makes the film so much more than a filmed profile of the man who had recently published a book that was a semi-mea culpa about his role in escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. It expands into an incisive examination into nearly a hundred years of an increasingly mechanized and brutal evolution of warfare (McNamara used his exceptional analytical skills to increase the efficiency of the Air Force’s firebombing of Japan near the end of WW2). At the end, McNamara is dodgy when Morris presses him as to why he didn’t voice his grave misgivings about Vietnam policy to Johnson but, aesthetically anyway, he is not let off the hook. As we hear audio of a phone interview of McNamara declining a last chance to come clean, we see the now elderly man driving around Washington in inclement weather, the hard rain of history beating down on his windshield.

“The Fog of War” was one of the first projects on which Morris use his patented “Interrotron” which (Wikipedia definition) “projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other.” And by extension, it makes it look like the interviewee is making eye contact with the viewer. But if one thinks this method will necessarily out the truth, that notion is quickly dispelled by the ceaselessly obstructionist style of Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” If you can get past his weasly double-talk (naturally, the film’s title is his own phrase) and the shit-eating grin, you might get something out of this film. But if you were someone outraged at Rumsfeld’s key role in the simplistic invasion plan in Iraq (“intellectually bankrupt” in the words of one general) that left the country in tatters and was based on a flimsy premise (the evidence-free accusation of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks), or were upset at the policy of U.S. troops standing by during the wholesale cultural destruction of the Iraq Museum looting (“stuff happens,” said Donny) or revulsed at his enabling of the heinous treatment of detainees, many of them innocent, which devolved into the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”), the film will leave you cold. Rumsfeld doesn’t feel exposed, he is allowed to go on and on in the current fashion of unaccountable yammering. To him and us, it’s just another day in the grinding machinery of the media-industrial complex.


America’s favorite slovenly sociopath? Steve Bannon in 2010.

Can you blame potential distributors for thinking that “American Dharma” is more of the same, esp. in view of Bannon’s “toxic reputation” (in the words of the Boston Globe)? Breitbart is now all but the communications arm of a mindset that is not out of step with the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. I have no problem with Bannon having his say, but for God’s sake wasn’t he a top White House advisor, feeding his xenophobic notions to the already unscrupulous, spiteful and easily-manipulated Trump? That’s say enough. Any further exposure is just fodder for the ever-spinning media merry-go-round. But if you need further confirmation of what you already know, “American Dharma” will likely see the light of day in some form or the other. In the Globe article, Morris says “I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie.” After Morris confirmed that Steve Bannon had seen the film and was asked what he thought, the director said “He likes it” and, according to reporter Mark Feeney, “barked out a laugh.” Forgive me if I’m not amused.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s