Tuesday, November 5, 2019

American Dharma

The fatal flaw of Errol Morris's American Dharma, currently playing at Film Forum (and truth as well as the lives lost in places like Charlottesville are both the fatalities here), is that Steve Bannon is not a literary character, but rather a flesh and bloody sociopath capable of harm. One of his favorite mantras derives from Lucifer in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." He believes in dharma which is “duty, fate and destiny” and lives in the memory of Gregory Peck’s Twelve O’Clock High which epitomizes these values. Might this mandate also translate into attacks on globalism and immigration? Morris shows a clip of Henry the Fifth's repudiation of Falstaff from Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. However, despite Bannon’s protestations about his dismissal from The White House being the "natural order of things," he looks just like Falstaff. In fact in his disheveled hefty form, his shock of hair hanging dramatically over his forehead, he looks uncannily like both Kane and Falstaff. There's a bereft look in the deposed kingmaker's eyes, as he gazes wistfully towards some imaginary stage wing, that gives him the crazed appearance of a Welles doppelgänger. But the forelornness is what makes Morris's subject so affecting and even sympathetic (you have to remind yourself that he told the National Front, "Let them call you racists...Wear it as a badge of honor"). Because Bezeebub knows he's Beezebub, he gets to join the table. He’s a cineaste as well as former filmmaker and Goldman Sachs investment banker and the move is rife with citations of everything from My Darling Clementine,  The Searchers, Bridge Over the River KwaiThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Paths of Glory. You can tell a man by his friends and you’re instinctually going to gravitate to anyone who's capable of such a breadth of knowledge. Could Roger Ebert get away with being pro-Trump, if he rattled off the right references. Maybe not, yet it works here. "We're going to make an avant garde film for right wingers," he says about his project. Morris might have set out to expose Bannon, but Bannon has the better of him and Bannon genuinely seems crushed when Morris reveals that he's voted for Hillary Clinton, if only to stop Trump. Bannon turns the tables on Morris. What a setup! Most of the movie takes place in an aircraft hanger in homage to the Gregory Peck character in Twelve O'Clock High who exhorts his men “consider yourself already dead.” The film starts and ends on a aircraft runway with Bannon negotiating its crags like the warrior he claims to be (one of his weapons was the Alt-Right call-to-arms Breitbart, when he headed it). Morris has stacked all the cards against both himself and his liberal audience with a beguiling filmic creation now starring in a movie no longer of the director's own making. Bannon is inadvertently lionized and ends up pulling the rug up from under his director and also stealing the spotlight as well as the show. Life is war. Nothing is off limits. So much for due process. Just proceed. 

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