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Greg Wetherall

American Dharma – first look review

Acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris seeks answers from Trump’s former fire fighter-in-chief, Steve Bannon.

Documentarian Errol Morris locks his inquisitorial gaze on the US political domain once again. Similar in vein to his celebrated The Fog of War and The Unknown KnownAmerican Dharma scrutinises controversial polemicist Stephen K Bannon: one-time Chief Strategist to Donald Trump and all-round heavyweight firebrand.

Bannon makes for an intriguing and enigmatic figure. From filmmaker to Breitbart honcho to presidential adviser, via alternative virtual currencies, he fits the mould of a distinctly 21st century polymath. The film partly focuses on his time as executive chairman with the Breitbart News Network following Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012. Bannon was chiefly responsible for relaunching the site as a platform for the alt-right and catapulted the concept of Trump-as-President into the minds of many disenfranchised Americans seeking something brash, bold and new.

The film covers Bannon’s canny crisis management after allegations of sexual misconduct threatened to derail Trump’s presidential campaign. It is a chastening experience to listen to Bannon describe his fundamental grasp of the tenets of populism and how he successfully steered his charge out of danger.

In a break from his recent offerings, Morris allows his camera to peer in on his subject from various angles, and intercuts the interview material with archive news footage, social media posts and references to old movies. (For reasons unknown, Morris has ditched his ‘Interrotron’ set-up – the famed contraption that ensures his subjects stare straight down the barrel of the lens.)

Is Bannon a racist? Was he the architect of Trump’s notorious ‘travel ban’? How does he feel to have been turfed out by the man he helped elevate to Office? Allegations are thrown at him and yet, for the most part, the avowed ‘apocalyptic rationalist’ proves to be an articulate, erudite and genial interviewee. The harshest of criticisms are met with calm reflection.

Relations between Morris and Bannon become increasingly chummy as the film progresses and one begins to wonder whether the terrier-like approach of Alex Gibney might have made for a more excoriating interrogation – certainly for a figure who openly professes to endorse the line “It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

Bannon opines that further chaos is just around the corner and that we should be braced for the revolution. But who is Stephen K Bannon, really, and what is his modus operandi? Agent provocateur? Agitprop extraordinaire? Or scorned soothsayer of our collective future?

Morris would prefer us to draw our own conclusions. American Dharma has its faults, but nevertheless an engrossing portrait emerges – one of a polarising character who sat in the control room as the alt-right wrecking ball demolished convention, orthodoxy and ushered in a new dawn. Like it or not, Bannon is not done yet.

Published 6 Sep 2018

Tags: Donald Trump Errol Morris Steve Bannon Venice Film Festival

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