The person in the world who would most want to see a documentary about Steve Bannon made by Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris is probably Steve Bannon.
A self-mythologizing cinephile who served as Donald Trump’s Iago during the 2016 election, and may reprise the role in 2020, Bannon has been a fan of Morris since 2003. At the Telluride Film Festival, he saw the premiere of Fog of War—the filmmaker’s documentary on Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense who oversaw the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—and became inspired to create documentaries of his own.
When Morris’s agent reached out to Bannon in 2018 about what would become the just-released American Dharma, Bannon seemed excited by the idea.
The director and subject did not exactly form a mutual admiration society, though. While Bannon may have seen in the director an unflinching excavator of brutal human truth, Morris saw in Bannon someone cloaked in self-deceit.
“He creates a bullshit world around him,” Morris says. “The populist who takes money from billionaires, who goes to Harvard Business School, who works for Goldman Sachs, and who buys and sells Hollywood companies. Champion of the people? Or bullshit artist?”
Morris had just finished reading Michael Wolff’s White House palace intrigue narrative Fire and Fury, along with Joshua Green’s Bannon bio, Devil’s Bargain, when it occurred to him the former Breitbart head might make a compelling interview. The negative controversy surrounding Bannon put him in fitting company with past Morris subjects like McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, who ushered in, and grossly mishandled, the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“I’m always drawn to the true evildoers,” Morris says. “To try to understand the nature of their evil.”
In this regard, Bannon presented a rare opportunity for the director. He’s the only man Morris has ever met who happily compares himself to Satan.
Morris shot American Dharma over six or seven days of interviews with Bannon. The two would meet inside a sound stage near Allston, Massachusetts, designed to look like the airfield headquarters setting of Twelve O’Clock High, Bannon’s favorite film. In between their conversations, the director and his subject would watch movies that Bannon had selected, among them The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Bannon’s commentary on the movies is as illuminating as anything he offers about himself.
“I’m always looking for some way in, some way of discovering something about my subject. Some way that’s surprising, unexpected, nontraditional,” Morris says about this approach.
Bannon’s admiration of movies gives viewers a lens through which to view his mind. The way he describes orchestrating Donald Trump’s pugilistic response to the infamous Access Hollywood tape in October 2016 sounds no different from the way he describes Gregory Peck’s Brigadier General Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High, fighting to defeat Nazi Germany. Bannon clearly sees his actions as heroic, even when his definition of victory sounds utterly nihilistic.
In one quietly telling moment, while making a point, Bannon slams his hands on a desk so hard that a framed photo clatters to the ground, an extra audio exclamation point. “That’s a good effect,” Bannon says afterward, as if directing the movie himself. He can’t resist controlling the narrative at all times.
In going toe-to-toe with a spin maestro obsessed with his own legend, Morris decided to keep things loose in his preparation.
“I try to read a lot, watch a lot, think a lot, before actually doing an interview,” he says, “but I don’t go in with prepared questions or a set agenda.”
The result of Morris’s approach is a river of free-flowing conversation that occasionally, organically ebbs into confrontation. In moments that feel far removed from soundbite-minded reporter ambushes, we see Bannon’s face fall as he learns who Morris voted for in the 2016 primary—and why—and see him stonily refuse to respond when Morris calls Bannon’s waving away of Charlottesville “incredibly perverse.”
Knowing that Bannon is getting this pushback from someone he actually admires makes these exchanges riveting to witness. It’s no spoiler to say that the briefly charged moments in the film never culminate in an explosive admission about his movement’s inherent contradictions. But perhaps no such pyrotechnics are needed.
“In a way, I sometimes think that when someone’s forced to answer questions, it’s far less interesting than the evasion, or the attempt not to answer, it often tells you even more,” Morris says. “It may not be as satisfying dramatically, but I think you learn a lot. You learn a lot in those scenes where he just glowers at me.”
Indeed, some of the most electric moments in this talk-filled documentary are wordless shots of Bannon refusing to answer a direct question or hit back on a damning observation. It’s like watching the recent video of Trump realize he’s being booed at the World Series, where he literally seethes. Unfiltered. Human. Finally devoid of even clumsy artifice.
Despite the moments where his mask slips, Bannon is apparently a fan of American Dharma. Although Morris hasn’t spoken with Bannon since completing production, his producers have been in touch.
“I’m told that he liked it and thought it was my best film,” Morris says, suppressing a little laugh.
For a long time, it looked as though the documentary might not have the chance to reel in that many more fans besides its subject. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018, Morris had trouble finding a distributor for American Dharma. (Utopia finally stepped in this past August.) There are several marketplace considerations that might explain other companies’ cold feet around the film, but one of them looms far above the rest. Around the same time as Dharma’s festival debut in September 2018, Bannon was invited to speak at the New Yorker Festival—and then swiftly uninvited after a pronounced outcry and some high-profile dropouts. The impact of this dramatic chain of events, which largely played out on social media, was not lost on Morris, to say the least.
“I suppose you’re entitled to invite or disinvite anybody you want, but the circumstances were such that it telegraphed that this is how these kinds of things should be handled,” the director says. “It had horrible consequences for the movie.”
Considering Bannon’s demonstrable unpopularity, one might think Morris’s view of the political svengali as a harbinger of evil—the fascination that led him to make American Dharma—might have died down in the days since. One would be wrong.
“I was worried before, and I’m even more worried now,” he says. “He’s a force to reckon with, and we’d better reckon with him.”