American Dharma, The DVD That Almost Wasn't

Hoo boy!  This disc has traveled a long, hard road to reach us.  It's been highly publicized, at least as far as documentaries get coverage, that Errol Morris's latest documentary, American Dharma, received a lot of political blow-back after premiering at the Venice IFF in 2018.  Here's a good article covering the basics of the story at the time, but the gist of it is that the film is about/ interviews Steve Bannon, very much in the style of Morris' previous The Fog of War and The Unknown Known.  All three are sort of attempts to glean insight into somewhat notorious right-wing political figures of our recent past.  But Dharma screened right after a scheduled interview with Bannon was famously removed from the New Yorker Festival in the name of deplatforming... remember that big brouhaha?  It's an interesting debate whether it's better to challenge or ignore such people, but regardless of where you fall on the issue, it left Errol Morris with his theatrical expectations for his latest feature dashed.  After the initial publicity, no one was going to touch it.

What didn't get so much mention in the press is that this stigma carried on right to home video.  The initial thought was oh well, Dharma would wind up going straight to Netflix after the fiasco, but they didn't want it either.  It couldn't even get on streaming platforms, and it got to the point that, a year later, I spotted Morris exasperatedly announcing to Twitter that, "Fuck 'em. I will distribute the movie myself."  Another year goes by, and everything's still quiet.  But eventually, this summer, some little label called Utopia finally rolled up and was willing/ able to get it on Amazon, Apple TV, etc... and yes, release it on DVD.  No, no blu-ray, but at this point, I'd say we're lucky to see this on disc at all.
It's interesting to note that out of Morris's little political interview trilogy, this is actually is most outwardly, obviously critical.  Rather than using his famous Interrotron, Morris sits in a room (actually an airport hanger) and confronts Bannon face to face, calling him out on falsehoods.  And it's definitely worth pointing out that the other Bannon documentary, The Brink, which came out the following year and is even less confrontational of its subject, had no problem getting immediate streaming and DVD distribution like any normal film.  I've seen that one, too.  It's not bad; it follows the more standard political documentary practice of trailing him around from hotel room to hotel room as he travels around doing press conferences and meetings with his team.  There's no question Dharma is the more fascinating of the two films, though, and I think it all shows Morris was mostly just the victim of unfortunate timing.  Although, I do have some sympathy for the notion that maybe we don't need to hear from characters like this through any more avenues than we already are... especially in Bannon's case (as opposed to McNamara and Rumsfeld), because he's still out trying to effect change, while the other two were essentially retired and looking back at inactive careers.
Plus, I have to admit, Morris isn't exactly screaming and waving his finger in Bannon's face.  Dharma is more confrontational than The Brink, in that we occasionally hear the filmmaker object to some things the subject says; but Morris's style is still largely to draw his subject out and listen rather than argue.  There's no narrator telling us what's right and wrong, and the viewers are trusted to make up their own minds about what they're hearing.  This is not a heavy-handed polemic, like the kind of films Bannon himself makes, but a sincere exploration.  In fact, Morris takes some more circuitous routes to get at what's going on in the man's mind, centering a considerable portion of the film on Bannon's favorite films, and only indirectly questioning what his tastes and interpretations say about him as a person and political actor.  And in the end, I'm not sure Bannon ever lets his guard down to leave us with any particularly surprising revelations or meaningful insights.  He turns out to be exactly who we already thought he was.
In a hundred years, when this doc is informing an audience less intimately familiar with a man who hasn't already been exposed to them in their news cycles and social media six ways from Sunday, this may turn out to be a wilder ride.  Think of how every reveal in Mr. Death was a surprise because we hadn't already witnessed all the twists and turns of Fred Leuchter's story.  But until then, I have to say that Dharma is less compelling than most of Morris's work, and he probably did choose the wrong time to tackle this subject, and not just because of the unfortunate drama it drummed up.  But it's still an Errol Morris film, which is to say a documentary of unusually high quality.  And I don't like the idea of works of art being denied to the public just because they've rubbed one group or another the wrong way.  So I'm excited to finally get this, even if it isn't his very best.  Like, if Morris were John Carpenter, this would be his Someone's Watching Me, not Halloween.  General audiences can probably skip it, but fans will still appreciate it and want a fancy special edition.  And don't worry, it's not his Ghosts of Mars.
2020 US Utopia DVD.
Utopia presents the film in its full scope of 2.39:1, which only occasionally shifts to accommodate vintage footage... for example that second, split shot is actually 3.07:1.  It's a brand new film, so they'd have to go out of their way to screw it up, and fortunately they haven't.  It's anamorphic; there are no interlacing issues.  The sole disappointment is that it's SD, so it's softer and less detailed than readily available streaming versions you could rent or buy for far less.  This is a DVD-only release in 2020 with all the frustration that entails.  But by DVD standards, it looks as good as it possibly can.

The audio, too.  We're given a choice between a 5.1 mix and a Dolby stereo, and optional English subtitles are included.  They're definitely not cheaping out here.  Obviously lossless isn't an option, but again, for a DVD, Utopia's made it as good as can be.
It's not even barebones (something I wish we could've said for The B-Side).  We're treated to a lengthy, 46 minute long Q&A with Morris.  The inclusion makes sense, as they kind of need to throw up the defense that American Dharma isn't a pro-Bannon vehicle in front of the film at every opportunity they can get.  And Morris is absolutely there to make his case for why this film should be allowed to exist and be seen despite the arguments to the contrary.  But at 46 minutes, there's more to it than that.  It's slightly annoying, because this was evidently filmed before a screening, rather than after, which means they had to avoid spoilers and keep the discussion shallow enough for an audience who hadn't seen the film.  A post-screening Q&A would've surely yielded much more interesting, informed audience questions.  But it's still pretty great, if only to revel in Morris's cantankerous mood and the surprising short shrift he gives the moderator, at times challenging the intelligence of the questions she's asking (which, to be clear, were actually perfectly valid).  So you won't want to miss it; and it was a nice surprise when I was almost certain there wouldn't be any special features to be found.
They also remember to throw on the trailer, because again, Utopia went and did a surprisingly good job.  It's just too bad it's DVD only.  But I'm glad to at least have something after it seemed like this was destined to be trapped in limbo.

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