CAMBRIDGE – There were no reported Steve Bannon sightings in the audience at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre on Jan. 3. But the former strategist for Donald Trump and onetime Breitbart head was very much there in spirit – as the subject of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” screened before a full house on a Friday night during its theatrical premiere run.
“American Dharma” explores Bannon’s controversial career, which took him from Breitbart News to the White House with the election of Trump in 2016. After the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, Bannon left the administration following calls for his dismissal. He has continued working with right-wing movements in Europe.
Morris is an American Jewish director who won an Oscar for “The Fog of War,” his 2003 biopic of Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Other subjects range from George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (“Known Unknowns”), to a Holocaust denier/electric chair repairman named Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (“Mr. Death”). In a post-film Q&A, Morris said that the Museum of Tolerance, a Holocaust museum in Los Angeles, was going to screen “Mr. Death,” but decided not to after Elie Wiesel protested.
“Let me assure you, not that it’s any kind of proof, I am not an anti-Semite,” Morris said. “I really love my mother … I was bar mitzvahed. As far as I know, I’m not an anti-Semite. It’s just crazy, just crazy, that a movie trying to examine the nature of Holocaust denial is branded as unshowable.”
Morris noted that Bannon decided to become a documentary filmmaker himself after seeing “The Fog of War.” In the interviews that form the basis of “American Dharma,” Bannon and Morris discussed not only the media and politics, but also some of Bannon’s favorite films, such as the 1949 World War II movie “Twelve O’Clock High,” starring Gregory Peck, and the 1967 Orson Welles Shakespearean drama “Chimes at Midnight.” In a nod to “Twelve O’Clock High,” Morris filmed his sessions with Bannon in a Quonset hut, which was built in Allston, across the Charles River from the filmmaker’s longtime hometown of Cambridge.
Early in the film, Bannon notes that he first saw “Twelve O’Clock High” when he was a student at Harvard Business School. “It just blew me away,” he said. He tells Morris that the film’s protagonist – an American military general portrayed by Peck – “understands his dharma.” Bannon defines this Buddhist concept as “a combination of duty, fate and destiny.”
When the Jewish Journal asked Morris how he came up with the film’s title, the filmmaker said, “We thought of ‘American Carnage,’ the name of [Trump’s] inaugural address,” but added, “I liked ‘American Dharma’. Bannon’s recurring use of the phrase ‘duty, destiny, dharma’ was at the “heart of the story,” said Morris.
The film depicts Bannon’s quest to fulfill his dharma beginning in 2008, when he learned that his daughter’s West Point volleyball team uniform was made in Vietnam. Citing the Americans and Vietnamese dead and wounded– including the son of his high school football coach – Bannon called the discovery “an incredibly clarifying moment for me.”
A former Navy officer, graduate of Harvard Business School and Georgetown University, and Hollywood producer of conservative-themed films, Bannon called himself a populist who gained access to elite institutions. He planned to work as an outsider against such elites by joining forces with the late Andrew Breitbart and his eponymous right-wing news organization, which helped take down then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner by reporting on the congressman’s tweeting of lewd imagery in 2011. Then, in the summer of 2016, Bannon entered electoral politics to head the Trump campaign with Kellyanne Conway.
In the film, Bannon says that after the media reported on Oct. 8, 2016 about Trump’s lewd comments from a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, he convinced Trump to go on the offensive a day later in the second debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and Secretary of State. Trump’s guests for the debate included four women – Juanita Broaddrick, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey – who had accused Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, of sexual abuse. Bannon claims in the film that his advice helped Trump win election.
Discussing the 2016 election brings about the one moment when Morris loses his cool. He tells Bannon that he voted for Hillary Clinton in the Massachusetts primary. “Oh, my God, you just crushed me,” Bannon says. “How can you possibly make ‘The Fog of War,’ ‘Known Unknowns’ and vote for Hillary Clinton?” An upset Morris replies, “I was afraid of you guys. I still am. I thought that she was the best hope of defeating Trump and Bannon. I did it out of fear. I don’t know how better to describe it.”
At various points, Morris asks Bannon whether his views yield destructive results. He voices fears of “a certain kind of meanness and racism,” such as prejudice against Mexicans, Arabs or Jews. The filmmaker shows footage of alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville in Aug. 2017 shouting “Jews will not replace us!” Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer died when neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove a car into counterprotestors, and graphic sounds and images are presented: a revving car, screams, a shattered windshield.
Bannon tells Morris that neo-Nazis are a creation of “the liberal media.” Morris replies that there is “something incredibly perverse” in such a view.
Some have criticized Morris for not going after Bannon harder. At the Brattle, Morris quoted a psychiatrist who told him that “part of the goal of psychiatry is to keep the patient coming back for more. You don’t want to be so antagonistic that they get out of the chair, out of the room … Did I exercise some discretion in what I asked? Of course.”
Yet, he reflected, even if he hit Bannon with a brick, “someone would say, ‘the brick wasn’t large enough, why not a cinderblock, why not an anvil?’ Some people are really difficult to please.”