Errol Morris directed “The Fog of War,” which appears to have motivated former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon to sit down with him for “American Dharma.” The meeting yields a contentious but not especially illuminating documentary, which could just as easily be titled “My Dinner With Steve K.”
Bannon is obviously a source of fascination as the mastermind behind Breitbart turned Trump whisperer, who saw in the bombastic businessman the imperfect vehicle to advance his political objectives.
What emerges, though, is a rather florid, disjointed conversation, one where Morris’ attempts to challenge and confront Bannon – who mixes discussing apocalyptic visions of insurrection with his love of old movies – feels mostly cathartic for the filmmaker, ultimately, without yielding much additional insight to understanding Bannon that hasn’t already been said.
Bannon spends a fair amount of time reminiscing about movies that motivated him, and the “combination of duty, fate and destiny” embodied by the iconic screen heroes that he admired – a la John Wayne in the western “The Searchers” – which provides the movie’s title.
The main focus, though, is debating Bannon’s worldview, with Morris disputing the contention that Bannon preaches populism, calling it “anti-populism” and potentially “something much uglier,” citing “an inherent contradiction in the views that you hold.”
Amid the verbal jousting, the interviewer speaks almost as much as the interviewee. As for Bannon, he essentially gloats about Trump’s successful campaign, taking credit for the idea of bringing Bill Clinton’s sexual-assault accusers to one of the 2016 presidential debates, and arguing that Brexit and Trump’s election are “inextricably linked.”
Morris’ rationale for the exercise is that opponents ignore Bannon at their own peril, while Bannon seems willing, even eager, to engage in a sparring match with Morris, using “The Fog of War” – the 2003 documentary featuring former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara – as a point of reference.
This is, notably, the second Bannon documentary released this year, following “The Brink,” a fly-on-the-wall look at his crusading efforts around the globe. Taken together, they underscore that the subject is, if nothing else, a guy who likes to talk.
“American Dharma” includes a musical score approximating that of a theatrical thriller, underscoring the sense of urgency – and passion – that Morris brings to the fray.
Even so, he’s delivered a film that, after an arduous process of tepid festival reviews and securing a distribution deal, finally throws off more heat than light – evidence that even in what’s strictly an ideological war, one’s perspective can get a little foggy.
“American Dharma” premieres Nov. 1 in select theaters.