Christopher Machell Toronto Film Festival

Toronto 2018: American Dharma review

★★☆☆☆

Errol Morris tackles his most disturbing and slippery subject to date, Steve Bannon, in new documentary American Dharma. Morris paints a frighteningly apocalyptic figure, but in depicting Bannon as the kind of subject Satanic king-maker that he clearly admires, one wonders how much the tail is wagging the dog.

Set in an abandoned hangar, Morris’ latest invokes the dark power of Bannon’s nihilistic message, while shooting him from low angles which seem to emphasise his gross monstrosity. Morris takes a curiously passive approach to his two-hour long interview with Bannon, presumably hoping to let him hoist himself by his own petard. It’s a dangerous game though – equivalent to letting a tantrum-throwing child dictate his own bed time in the hope that he tires himself out before dawn.

Instead, Bannon is able to espouse his inane brand of nihilism, blathering about destiny, duty and masculinity – his version of Dharma – that he sees mythologised in Western cinema. His insight amounts to a mediocre first-year film studies module via the philosophy of Mein Kampf, yet the way Morris shoots the interview inadvertently gives undue credence to such daft ramblings. Whatever else we may think about Bannon, there’s no question that he has been successful at what he does, and to underestimate his blunt dog-whistle rhetoric is arguably as dangerous as ignoring the groping orange spectre of his master.

Morris is inherently aware of this – but in his awareness of Bannon’s power, he is playing Bannon’s game. You call him apocalyptic, and he’ll shrug and say “I’m an apocalyptic rationalist”. You challenge him on Trump’s obvious corruption, multiple bankruptcies and lawsuits, and he’ll say with a straight face, “that’s the real estate business”. You find a tape of Trump boasting about sexual assault – fine, what about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?

It’s the tit-for-tat, bad-faith argumentative reasoning of the playground, but in the age of social media it has proven to be horrifyingly effective. What Morris naively seems to misunderstand is that this is a rigged game – debating and challenging a child like Bannon is like taking on a cut-rate Joker in poker – the only way to win is not to play.

There are insights here, many coming from Bannon himself on the reasons behind Trump’s ungodly victory, and the text inserts of Bannon’s real policies and behaviour go some way to challenging his on-screen lies. But in giving rope to Bannon and hoping that he’ll hang himself, we’re instead forced to watch him fashion a lasso and play at being John Wayne, with Morris seemingly powerless to stop him. Perhaps the most important lesson of American Dharma is that Bannon and his ilk are spoilt children, and like lazy, indifferent parents we have let them run riot. Perhaps it’s time for the adults to start acting as such and finally put the kids to bed.

The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell