One of Steve Bannon’s favorite movies, as he repeatedly reminds viewers during the documentary American Dharma, is Twelve O’Clock High, Henry King’s searing 1949 World War II film about a down-on-their-luck group of bomber pilots who are whipped into fighting shape by the stern General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). Bannon is entranced by Savage’s bluntness in the face of danger. On taking command, Savage barks at his men, “I don’t have a lot of patience with this, ‘What are we fighting for?’ stuff. We’re in a war, a shooting war. We’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die.”
That chilling pragmatism, wrapped up in a deep sense of duty, is part of what Bannon dubs as Savage’s “dharma,” some ill-defined mix of responsibility, fate, and destiny. Whatever Bannon means by “dharma” is never really clear, because Errol Morris’sAmerican Dharma, which played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is not really trying to get a cogent philosophy out of its subject. Instead, the film looks at how Bannon—who served as the chief strategist to President Donald Trump and as the executive chairman of Breitbart News—sees himself in America’s pop-culture heroes of yesteryear while casting the right-wing movement he’s a part of as profoundly patriotic.
Throughout the interview with Bannon, Morris cuts in clips from some of his subject’s favorite movies (in addition to Twelve O’Clock High, there’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Searchers) alongside news footage of the Trump campaign, controversial headlines from Breitbart, and statistics about the rise in hate crimes since the 2016 election. It’s clear enough that the director doesn’t buy into Bannon’s overarching narrative of Trump as a revolutionary warrior giving power back to the disenfranchised workers of America, but the film is still too dominated by Bannon’s monologuing for the contrasts to really land.
Morris isn’t interested in making a film that challenges every one of Bannon’s claims about right-wing populism. Instead, the documentarian is wrestling with the idea that Trump’s candidacy, and presidency, was rooted in the kind of swaggering mythmaking that Bannon admires here, and how dangerously facile that kind of nostalgia can be. The limits of such hero worship were a theme that recurred throughout the films screened at TIFF, some of which examined iconic moments in American history and tried to dig past their storybook gloss.
The best of the bunch was First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, which focuses on the famed astronaut’s years with NASA and the Apollo program. Chazelle has a couple of serious roadblocks to wringing drama from the story—everyone knows how the Apollo 11 mission ended, and Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) was a famously taciturn, straitlaced figure. But rather than run from those problems, Chazelle embraces them, crafting an incredibly powerful portrait of America’s Silent Generation and the lunatic calm of the space race, in which the U.S. threw money (and human lives) at a nigh-impossible task to demonstrate its exceptionalism.
The overblown controversy over the misreported news that the film doesn’t show the American flag being unfurled on the moon (the flag is, in fact, present in several shots) suggested that First Man wasn’t a patriotic work. But it is undoubtedly stirring, just in a more personal sense. The movie’s portrayal of Armstrong focuses on his grief over the death of his daughter, Karen (who died of pneumonia at age 2), which silently roiled him and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), as Armstrong trained for the moon landings. As the director tries to reckon with the resolute but distant Armstrong, Chazelle keeps his camera tight, shooting almost every dialogue scene in close-up, and the same goes for most of his action sequences (depicting the various missions Armstrong and company embarked on).
The effect is jarring and unsettling; Chazelle is leaning away from the handsome, sweeping, widescreen approach to space travel that viewers might be used to (from directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan). First Man is more fascinated with the ramshackle roughness of this great American endeavor, where the country strapped people to giant rockets and blasted them out of the atmosphere, relying mostly on math to keep them alive and bring them home. Gosling’s Armstrong is, at least to look at him, the model hero one might imagine, and the film’s late-’60s styling of the era is warmly familiar. But Chazelle, to his credit, wants to plumb beneath that homespun sheen.
Another film that digs into the dirty reality of American mythmaking is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, an accounting of Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, which saw the Colorado politician go from Democratic favorite to national laughingstock after the revelation of an extramarital affair. Hart is played by Hugh Jackman as the archetypal American ideologue, a senator who’s just as comfortable debating the finer points of tax policy as he is rolling up his shirtsleeves to throw a few axes at the county fair.
Reitman gives The Front Runner the feel of a Robert Altman comedy, populating it with a chatty ensemble of character actors and having them bark overlapping dialogue at one another, like the entire film is abuzz with excitement at Hart’s impending presidency. But any viewer that’s even glanced at Hart’s Wikipedia page knows the Donna Rice scandal is brewing, and indeed, some of the embedded reporters in the film quickly begin to chatter with their editors about the senator’s history as a womanizer.
Hart’s campaign team sees his private life as out-of-bounds, but the question of the senator’s relationship with the truth becomes more pressing and newsworthy. Even titans of the journalism industry such as Ben Bradlee (played here by Alfred Molina) admit that times are changing when it comes to what’s off-limits for the press to cover. The Front Runner’s thesis is that coverage of Hart’s campaign, which saw reporters from The Miami Herald stake out the candidate’s Capitol Hill home for evidence of an affair, was a turning point for American politics, leading it down the slippery slope of tabloidization.
But Reitman never has a proper grasp on the point he’s trying to make. Jackman gives Hart a tetchy, dismissive edge that only sharpens as he’s needled about his personal life. There’s never enough sense that something genuinely great was lost when he dropped out of his campaign, and any suggestion that there was something noble in older reporters’ policy of studiously ignoring John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s many affairs feels deeply misguided. Still, The Front Runner does try to examine the country’s consistent habit of falling for figures that embody (however briefly) some notion of the American ideal.
Which brings us back to Steve Bannon, defending the racist rhetoric deployed on his websites and campaign trails (he’s now stumping for various far-right parties in Europe) as somehow connected to the valiant “dharma” of those fighter pilots in Twelve O’Clock High. It’s certainly not hard to get swept up in cinema’s bottled portraits of America’s great heroes. But it’s the movies that push beyond their archetypal image that stand out today, and that’s something that Morris tries to accomplish with American Dharma. After all, his interview with Bannon takes place entirely in a military Quonset hut, a replica of the Twelve O’Clock High set, a place where champions are forged. By the end of movie, though, as Bannon’s point of view grows increasingly apocalyptic, Morris films the hut burning down, its World War II replicas melting in the flames.