Clint Eastwood was “The Man with No Name,” Steve Martin played “The Man with Two Brains,” but alt-right rogue Stephen K. Bannon—the subject and star of two new documentaries—is “The Man with Two Shirts.”
Bannon’s prior roles include naval officer, investment banker, entrepreneur, talk radio jock, Fox News regular, online publisher, Trump campaign manager, and purveyor of collective fantasy. As the journalist Joshua Green wrote in the introduction to Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising, “he’s a Hollywood guy at heart.”
A true disciple of Ronald Reagan, Bannon loves classic Hollywood. Indeed, his first film—In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in World and Deed, a Manichean recasting of the Reagan presidency as a crusade against the “Beast” (variously communism, fascism and Islamic terrorism) that quoted Lenin’s dictum (“cinema is the most important art”)—was fulsome in its praise of the so-called Dream Factory, hailing Hollywood as “the most powerful crucible on Earth” and the immigrant Jews whom he imagined ran the industry as “brutally efficient” men of “uncompromising patriotism.”
Since In the Face of Evil brought Bannon to the attention of the late alt-right web-mastermind Andrew Breitbart, he has made another nine equally tendentious film-essays. Some blamed liberal baby boomers for the financial crisis of 2008. Others celebrated the Tea Party, most extravagantly The Undefeated, a 2011 movie on which Bannon spent a million dollars of his own money to persuade Sarah Palin to run for president. These were followed by three attacks on Obama, punctuated with portentous biblical quotations, replete with over-the-top symbolism, and filled with what the filmmaker-critic Jeff Reichert characterized as “furious, utterly unhinged” montage sequences suggesting “the cliffhanger before a reality show’s commercial break.”
Never one to err on the side of restraint, Bannon attacked the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in his 2016 religious jeremiad Torchbearer with a fusillade of decapitations, shootings, and crucifixions. The movie featured Duck Dynasty’s “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson in the title role, touring Europe, praising Jesus, and offering scriptural interpretations of the A-bomb and the Holocaust. The most recent Bannon opus, [email protected] was released last year, around the time that the director, like Orson Welles and John Cassavetes before him, crossed over to star in other people’s movies—Errol Morris’ still unreleased American Dharma and Alison Klayman’s The Brink, opening on March 29.
Appropriate to Bannon’s self-presentation, American Dharma and The Brink represent two distinct modes of documentary filmmaking—subjective engagement and objective observation. Neither movie could be termed sympathetic, but neither is precisely unsympathetic either. Approaching their subject from different angles, Morris and Klayman reveal the monster who Saturday Night Live used to parody as the Grim Reaper, to be affable and even humorous—at least on camera.
A cinema verité style tag-along that shows Bannon palling around with Brexit architect Nigel Farage and various European right-wing extremists, as well as bumbling through the 2018 midterm elections, The Brink enjoyed a warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival. By contrast, American Dharma, an extended interview that allows Bannon to hold forth on his apocalyptic Weltanschauung, shown before the Republican shellacking, was regarded with distaste and even fury—dismissed by Variety as “a toothless bromance,” and denounced as “a travesty” by the World Socialist Web Site. Morris was disconcerted by the film’s negative reviews and even more by the fact that Bannon liked it. Why wouldn’t he? Morris plays to his subject’s own fantasies by building American Dharma around Bannon’s favorite movie, the 1949 World War II drama Twelve O’Clock High, reproducing shots and even building a set that simulates the movie’s airplane hangar.
Dealing with the psychological cost of conflict and the burden of leadership, Twelve O’Clock High concerns the Britain-based daylight bombing missions that pounded Germany throughout 1942 with devastating results for the often poorly equipped American flyers. Gregory Peck’s tough General Savage molds the character and fighting attitude of his air force division, imposing a brutal discipline on his demoralized men. (A multiple Oscar winner in 1949, the movie has enjoyed a long afterlife in leadership-training seminars, illustrating the problems of decision-making in business, as well as war.) Green describes Bannon attending billionaire Robert Mercer’s 2015 Christmas costume party dressed as Savage.
Rather than preaching the benefits of democracy or warning against the peril of fascism, Twelve O’Clock High poses an existential dilemma. Savage tells his men that they can expect to die—one step from kamikaze-dom, their mission is to inflict maximum destruction upon the enemy before they do. In his 1953 book, Film in the Battle of Ideas, the blacklisted communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson termed Twelve O’Clock High “an important step in Hollywood’s development of the Nazi theory that training for war, enforced by the will of a ‘superior’ class and accepted without question by ‘inferiors,’ is the highest aim to which we can aspire.” This interpretation runs counter to Bannon’s sense of populism; in his terms, Savage “understands his dharma”—by which he means a combination of duty, faith, and destiny.
Can dharma be … evil? Flattered when Morris compares him to Lucifer in Paradise Lost, Bannon implicates Morris (while playing to the filmmaker’s vanity) by claiming his 2003 interview with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War as his inspiration. His real ideal, however, as made clear in The Brink, is Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Shown editing [email protected], he turns to the camera and smirks, “How would Leni cut that scene?”
As Klayman, who, operating as a one-person crew, tracked Bannon for the year following his expulsion from the White House after the August 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” riot, never rises to the bait, Bannon seemingly regards her as less formidable than Morris. He spins his exile as a positive development: “I hated every second I was there … the West Wing has a bad karma to it.” Having posed as a serious countercultural savant in American Dharma, Bannon here plays subversive countercultural clown, Buddhist reference and all.
Chugging veggie smoothies and slugging kombucha, Bannon riffs on himself as a “gross-looking Jabba the Hutt drunk,” and pretends not to remember the title of his own film (Torchbearer). “My shit in Auschwitz rocked,” he jokes, recalling one of the film’s locations, before launching into a free-associative riff on the planning meetings that mass extermination must have entailed. (How would Leni have cut that scene?)
Fired by Trump and defunded by his patrons, Bannon turned his attentions to Europe and the 2019 EU elections, kibitzing with Farage, French extremist Marine Le Pen, and the fugitive Chinese oligarch Miles Kwok, while basking in the Brexit chaos partially fomented by the local Breitbart editor Raheem Kassan. As documented in The Brink, Bannon was present at the Venice Film Festival where American Dharma had its premiere but, rather than attend the screenings, holed up in a hotel for five days to hobnob with his fellow national-populist wizards. The Brink includes a lovely scene of Bannon lunching with a gaggle of Euro-smoothies who are caught up short when Paul Gosar, the Arizona congressman who would be attacked by six siblings when he ran for reelection in 2018, insists on saying grace.
Bannon’s European tour has the feel of a flop and actually was. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, Bannon’s “ventures failed time and again as he was rejected by most European far-right parties” and prevented by existing laws from financing campaigns in nine of the 13 countries he targeted. Back home, Klayman puts Bannon in the company of losers and lunatics—hanging with would-be Alabama senator and alleged sexual predator Roy Moore and a would-be Michigan representative confides that she was pregnant during the 2016 campaign and hoped to have Trump autograph her “belly.”
Most woundingly, Klayman shows Bannon bested by journalists and bombing with audiences. A debate with never-Trump conservative David Frum in Toronto prompts derisive laughter from the crowd. One speech is disrupted when a woman shrieks “The divine hand of God made Trump president”—perhaps a presentiment of the Doomsday Kali Yuga that Bannon, a reader of neofascist Julius Evola, hints is imminent.
Perhaps the season’s purest critique of Bannonism, however, is the stage adaptation of the movie Network which, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Bryan Cranston, has been a hit both in London and New York. It is not just the revival of the 1976 movie’s once prophetic, now ridiculously timely representation of fake news, demagogic TV, and the power of rage, but the theatrical demonstration that, given a choice, an audience will opt for the spectacle of larger-than-life telescreen images over the smaller drama on the stage.
Distraction rules. Morris may treat Bannon as a fellow intellectual and Klayman may depict him as a clumsy hustler, but Bannon understands better than them the nature of propagandist jiujitsu. Talking to Morris, he explains a strategy that, nearly dialectical, casts Trump as the agent of change that Obama wasn’t. Reaction as revolt. Bannon similarly takes credit for turning Clinton’s pejorative “deplorable” into a positive—the backbone of Trump’s support. The Access Hollywood tape occasioned Bannon’s finest hour. It was he who organized a press conference for the women who charged Bill Clinton with sexual harassment and worse, then put them in the front row of the second Clinton-Trump debate to put the malocchio on Hillary.
“Hate is a motivator,” Bannon tells Klayman, echoing Cranston’s observation regarding the character he plays in Network. Bannon’s gift to Trump was a slogan-friendly national-populist ideology—although his fellow mountebank had already realized that naked xenophobia was the logical extension of the rabid birther-ism that, throughout Obama’s second term, made him a regular Fox News commentator.
On a practical level, Bannon had, as the editor of Breitbart News, a well-honed post-Tea Party contempt for the Republican establishment—a populism based on defending virtuous, implicitly white, working-class Americans against the immigrant hordes and a corrupt self-serving elite—and, more importantly firsthand experience in the troll-happy realm of alt-right media. (Although pleased to allow Bannon to brag about Breitbart’s role in bringing down Congressman Anthony Weiner, Morris devotes no time to the site’s far more significant assault on the nation’s largest community organizing group ACORN.) A true disciple of Trump, Bannon takes no responsibility for Breitbart’s more egregious exercises in race-baiting, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. Pressed by Morris about Charlottesville, he dismisses the white supremacists and neo-Nazis as “totally and completely meaningless”—an invention of the left-wing media—even as he compares the righteous democracy of alt-right chat rooms to John Ford’s idealized old West.
Does he really believe this? American Dharma has been praised by Joshua Green who, interviewed by Indiewire critic Eric Kohn, called it “the best sustained, forceful examination into the mind of the man who got Donald Trump elected president.” Welcome to our nightmare. Still, Bannon is only one part of the perfect storm. Credit must be given to The Apprentice, Twitter, Roger Ailes, Fred Trump and the sleazy world of New York City real estate, fear of a black planet, James Comey, Jill Stein, WikiLeaks, shameless mendacity, professional wrestling, and 77,744 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, not to mention Clinton herself.
Trump notwithstanding, Bannon sees another “French revolution” coming, although it is unclear if it will be precipitated by foreign immigrants or American deplorables. Nothing if not grandiose, he puts himself in the vanguard. According to Green, Bannon owns an oil portrait of himself as Napoleon, painted a la David—a gift from Farage. So is the flannel-on-flannel belly-to-the-bar wardrobe a costume or a disguise? Is it survivalist chic? Retro grunge? The Harpo Marx look? Sartorial proof that he’s no gentleman? Signifier of no bullshit realness?
Bannon is not so much a nihilist as a moral vacuum. Two shirts to the void—the one that Nietzsche warned winks back at you. “Trump taught me a great lesson,” Bannon tells Klayman. “There is no bad media.” In other words, it’s all fake! If Bannon didn’t exist, Trump would have surely invented him.
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J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.