Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon is widely known as the notorious Breitbart News honcho and as a fierce Trump loyalist. He also happens to be one of the lousier right-wing propagandists to ever operate in Hollywood.
After he amassed his personal fortune in his years in investment banking, Bannon left it all behind and headed to Los Angeles to become a film producer. He began mainstream—for example, he was the co-executive producer for Titus, the 1999 thriller and Shakespeare adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins.
But in the aughts, he turned to directing.
Now, it’s not too often that the head of a major-party presidential campaign has a past life as a director in Hollywood, so I eagerly sat down to binge-watch all eight of Bannon’s documentaries in one sitting.
Little did I know what a relentlessly soul-sucking endeavor it would be.
But I did it for you, the reader.
First up was his 2004 directorial debut, In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed. Upon first glance, it’s pretty clear that all that influence from the talented communist and fascist filmmakers didn’t do him much good.
In the Face of Evil has all the gravitas and memorability of a History Channel documentary, but without the Illuminati or space invaders. It’s an eye-opening, educational documentary, only if you had no idea that Republicans think Ronald Reagan was good and the Soviet empire was bad.
The film depicts Reagan as a titan, a hero of Western civilization, conqueror of all commies. Naturally, the movie puts a happy face on the less savory aspects of the Reagan administration’s anti-communist “secret plan,” such as all those times Reagan politically and financially backed rapist death squads.
“Good versus evil in this epic tale which chronicles Ronald Reagan’s crusade to destroy the most tyrannical and depraved political systems the world has ever known,” the summary reads.
The marketing for the film portrays President Reagan in the same manner that Bannon might describe Trump today—as “an outsider, a radical, with extreme views,” ready to wage glorious war against “totalitarian evil.”
“A BRILLIANT EFFORT…EXTREMELY WELL DONE,” right-wing talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh blurbed for Bannon’s doc.
Next up was Bannon’s Citizens United Productions collaboration Generation Zero, a 2010 Fox News-endorsed love letter and blown kiss to tea partiers. The documentary features Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, and examines how liberal regulatory excess of the 1960s led to our debt and economy sucking today. The 90-minute production, which you can view in its entirety below, is less a documentary and more a prolonged super-PAC ad that you immediately put on mute whenever it comes on in prime time.
If you enjoy watching Lou Dobbs tell you how you and your American kids were everlastingly screwed by the Democratic Party, then this movie is your best friend.
In 2010, Bannon also wrote and directed smaller-time fare such as Fire from the Heartland and Battle for America, which stars someone who the film promotes as “the country’s top political strategist Dick Morris.” (Dick Morris is only the country’s top political strategist in the sense that he can never seem to prognosticate his way out of a paper bag.)
Generation Zero was never going to win Bannon many accolades from his Hollywood colleagues, but it was enough to catch the attention of Sarah Palin, whom Bannon partnered with in 2011 to mount his masterwork: The Undefeated, a political documentary that glosses over all of Palin’s many failures and shortcomings to prop her up as a courageous and triumphant rebel.
At the time of its release, CNN noted that the pro-Palin film had “Clockwork Orange-esque evocative images sprinkled throughout (shark attacks, bodies being buried, warfare both modern and ancient),” and was imbued with artistic symbolism that is “almost dadaist.”
The shark attacks are the best part of the movie.
“The Undefeated, the new political image-branding effort from ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is really a troop-rallying campaign infomercial as imagined by Michael Bay: hero-worshipping, crescendo-edited at a dizzying pace, thunderously repetitive and its own worst enemy as a two-hour, talking-points briefing,” the Los Angeles Times reported upon its small theatrical run, in what was one of the movie’s less damning reviews.
Watching the film, you get the sense that Palin is one of America’s very few “champions” of the people, not a bumbling political figure who has struggled to achieve continuing relevance post-2010. The film’s narrative couldn’t be more perfect for Palin’s brand if Palin had written the thing herself: the GOP establishment is feckless and corrupt, and “liberal media” is something bordering on evil, and the only way to salvage what’s left of this republic is to ensure that more Americans think and act like Sarah L. Palin.
You’re the dumb one for thinking Palin is dumb.
All in all, the movie is less compelling than re-watching that clip of Palin trying to talk about vegans and purgatory.
This seems like a good time to mention Bannon’s inspirations.
When asked by The Wall Street Journal in 2011 about his top cinematic influences, Bannon quickly cited legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the influential Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” he said. “I’ve studied documentarians extensively to come up with my own in-house style. I’m a student of Michael Moore’s films, of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl. Leave the politics aside, you have to learn from those past masters on how they were trying to communicate their ideas.”
(Speaking of those past masters, Bannon’s new boss Trump allegedly used to regularly read Adolf Hitler’s collected speeches from a book kept tucked away in a cabinet next to his bed.)
In 2012, Bannon was back with The Hope & the Change, another Citizens United production that NBC News dubbed the “most ambitious production yet of Citizens United.” The doc tells the story of dozens of Democrats and independents disillusioned with the state of the Obama era.
You see interviews with ordinary Americans complaining about the “gridlock” and “division” of the Obama years, juxtaposed with news footage of the president saying things like, “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
In 2012, the year President Obama was re-elected, the Breitbart chairman directed two more flicks: District of Corruption and another Citizens United joint titled, Occupy Unmasked.
The latter which stars Andrew Breitbart himself, attempts to form an exposé on the Occupy Wall Street movement as a bunch of violent, vulgar, sex crime-committing moochers. The film was distributed by Magnolia Pictures, a company co-owned by Mark Cuban (a billionaire businessman who now campaigns for Trump’s general-election rival, Hillary Clinton).
Breitbart spends his screentime lumbering about New York City explaining why the biased mass media isn’t telling you about the true dangers of Occupy. He teases his attempted exposé as the story of the century.
(Spoiler: It isn’t.)
The film, of course, isn’t content to paint the protesters as mere idiots or losers. Bannon’s doc teaches us that the organizers behind OWS are a direct threat to American institutions and our way of life—every loud, unkempt demonstrator is the moral and ideological cousin of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s tiresome hippy-punching, with an added dose of apocalyptic hysterics you typically reserve for when the Red Army’s tanks are advancing on your hometown.
As much as he’d like to be, Bannon is no Riefenstahl or Eisenstein—he’s Dinesh D’Souza without the box-office hits. At least now, he can give filmmaking a break and channel his outrage and artistic impulses towards shaping the Trump presidential campaign in his image.
“There’s a revolt going on in this country, and the old paradigm—controlled and financed by a collection from the Party of Davos—is cratering,” Bannon told The Daily Beast late last year. “There’s a tsunami of rage from populist conservatives.”