American Dharma Movie Review: Duty, Fate, and Destiny

American Dharma is a documentary film in which director Errol Morris interviews Steve Bannon, who, among many other roles, was the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump. The interview is staged on a recreated Quonset hut and air strip from the movie Twelve O’Clock High. According to Bannon, “‘Dharma’ is the combination of duty, fate, and destiny.”

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The documentary is broken into six parts: The Fog of #war, Honey Badgers, Angry Voices, Generation Zero, What Have I Done, and Go F#ck Yourself. Each part tackles a different aspect of Bannon’s career ranging from his time as a documentary filmmaker (Bannon says he was influenced to make documentaries, in part, by the work of Errol Morris), as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, as an advisor to President Trump, and finally holding the office of White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President; a position that was created for Bannon, and abolished when he and the president went separate ways.

The film is a collage of Steve Bannon speaking with Errol Morris (Morris speaks far more often than in most of his other films, and he does not hide his bias against Bannon’s point of view); clips from some of Bannon’s favorite movies such as Twelve O’Clock High, The Searchers, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Paths of Glory; voice-over from Morris’ previous film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara; and overlays of various Tweets, texts, emails, and headlines. This approach is complex yet engaging, and the way in which it all comes together so seamlessly is just another reminder of the genius of Errol Morris.

Bannon comes off as thoughtful and erudite. His stories are engaging and provoking. He is a man who believes quite deeply that populism is the answer to America’s ills. An early story, in particular, shows a partial shaping of his ideals. Bannon tells how his daughter’s volleyball team bought new uniforms, and how disgusted he was by the discovery that the uniforms were inscribed “Made in Vietnam”. “What was it all for?” (meaning the Vietnam war) he asks over and over again. “What was it all for?” This idea that nearly 60,000 soldiers died in a war only to be buying goods from the Vietnamese two decades later obviously deeply affected Bannon.

There are many great stories here. Bannon gives insight on his dealings with alternative currencies such as the “gold” and “weapons” used in the game World of Warcraft. How that work led him to believe that your everyday low-level worker can become Ajax the Mighty Warrior online. And Ajax is part of a community he cares deeply about. This made Bannon realize that Breitbart’s online comment section could give people that feeling of being Ajax. He pushed for arguments and vitriol. He truly believes that those arguments will lead to the populism he craves.

American Dharma is a thoughtful, intelligent film. Steve Bannon is a powerful man, but he is also a very insightful man. He deserves a listen, and this film is a great way to hear what he is about, and what he has to say. Highly recommended.

Greg Hammond

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