As a political junkie and fan of director Errol Morris, I was probably going to tip towards the positive side when reviewing “American Dharma.” The documentary film has caused great controversy (with many claiming Morris didn’t seize the opportunity to ask tougher questions while interrogating his very unlikable subject, Steve Bannon), and while I do agree that some of the criticism is deserved, the movie itself is so interesting that I can overlook the documentarian’s kid-gloved treatment of his controversial subject.
Let’s state the obvious: nobody likes Bannon. I know it. You know it. But listening to this guy bellow about how great and powerful he is turns out to be as compelling as it is unpalatable. Bannon is destructive on so many levels, and he makes a lot of excuses while facing an interviewer with an overly friendly demeanor that suggests he and Morris are in the midst of some sort of sick bromance. All of this is due to the absence of a hard-hitting line of questioning from the filmmaker, but the documentary is still enlightening, if only in the most disturbing sense.
Morris chooses to keep his focus on Bannon’s toxic ideology, including his background and arguably distorted worldview, and never challenges him on the answers. In an interesting twist, the filmmaker weaves in scenes from films like “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Twelve O’Clock High” while discussing how these classics shaped Bannon’s understanding of the world.
While Morris never takes his subject to task (and oh how delicious the film would be if he had), he has crafted a time capsule that delivers a blunt (and aggravating) record of one of the most polarizing political figures of our time.