Tag Archives: B-

THE BRINK

Producer: Marie Therese Guigis and Alison Klayman
Director: Alison Klayman
Writer: 
Stars: Stephen K. Bannon
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

B-

Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the recent efforts of far-right political activist (and former Trump aide) Steve Bannon to elect candidates sympathetic to his cause and build a worldwide “populist” movement gives him ample opportunity to express his views—and to deny that they’re in any way racist or dangerous. It also shows him as a disheveled, shambling regular Joe (or at least as pretending to be one)—a guy who likes kombucha and can laugh about that seemingly odd choice in drinks, and who—like so many of us—is, largely unsuccessfully, trying to lose weight.

It’s clear, however, that “The Brink” is hardly an effort to humanize Bannon; it’s rather a not-so-subtle attempt at demonizing his program. But it raises some troubling issues. Consider its opening, in which Bannon recalls visiting Auschwitz and opines that Birkenau was more horrifying because while Auschwitz used standing structures, Birkenau was built from scratch, designed by experts in Germany who were unaware of the crimes they were abetting. Bannon marvels at the skill with which they had done their work without realizing what the end result would be. Klayman’s implication, of course, is that Bannon is also using his considerable abilities to achieve something awful. The question she leaves hanging is whether he realizes it. And, of course, a pervasive assumption is that he is in fact the master strategist he claims to be. But is he? “The Brink” may be designed to tear Bannon down; but it might actually serve to promote his grandiose self-image.

Klayman begins with Bannon’s departure from the Trump White House in August, 2017, and the events that soon soured his relationship with the administration—the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” with the shockingly blunt comments that got him fired from his old position at Breitbart News and led to long-time financial supporters abandoning him, and the electoral disappointment he suffered when Judge Roy Moore, his candidate for the Senate from Alabama, was defeated after accusations of sexual impropriety were raised.

She then follows Bannon as he turns to another hunting ground to propagate his vision of what he calls economic populism—Europe, where nationalistic, anti-immigrant parties are in the ascendant. We watch him as he works with local politicos to establish a coalition that can take control in 2019 parliamentary elections, bubbly about the possibilities of a sweeping victory but constantly disappointed in what he perceives as the ineptitude and lack of focus among his associates—and always ready to say so in furious terms. He’s equally exercised about the danger Trump faces if the Democrats take control of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterm election—and no less voluble in expressing himself about it.

There’s little doubt that Klayman is appalled by Bannon’s views, and her film is designed to show that. But as he admits, he shares with Trump the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity (although the Moore campaign might have called that premise into question); and while he’s unapologetic about his ideas, he insists that they’re not they’re not the evil white supremacist dogma that leftists (like Klayman) would claim, but perfectly acceptable traditionalist notions. By giving him the opportunity to present himself, except on a few occasions when the mask drops, as a genial, if obsessively dedicated, person with a hot temper, the film inevitably makes him seem far less of a monster than a viewer might have assumed, and his opinions less outrageous.

“The Brink” is far more likely to cement your opinion about Steve Bannon than change it. Some might actually agree with the pronouncements he makes here and become even more admiring of his pugnacity in advancing them. Others will find him a confirmation of what they find most disturbing about today’s politics, both here and abroad. But though unlikely to lead to a revision what you think of Bannon, pro or especially con, on purely objective terms it’s a solid piece of cinematic reportage that provides a more intimate, layered portrait of the man than you’ve probably had access to before, while providing him with one more forum to promote his vision. And that’s precisely where the danger lies—which is undoubtedly why Bannon agreed to give Klayman such access in the first place, and why ironically it undermines what her purpose was in making the film in the first place.

So a thumbs-up, but the digit is cautiously raised.

THE HIGHWAYMEN

Producer: Casey Silver
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Fusco
Stars: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Sadler, W. Earl Brown, David Born, Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert
Studio: Netflix

B-

Arthur Penn’s now classic “Bonnie and Clyde” was excoriated in some circles upon its release in 1967 for glorifying the two 1930s murderous bank robbers, but it’s taken more than half a century for a cinematic response from the other side. “The Highwaymen” makes unsung heroes of the two former Texas Rangers who were instrumental in tracking down the outlaw pair and arranging their gruesome downfall.

The duo is Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who had been mothballed but are called back into service in 1934 by Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) after the celebrity couple’s crime spree has become too much of an embarrassment to both state and federal governments to be tolerated any longer. It will come as no surprise that these veterans of a form of policing so harsh that Ferguson had earlier disband the force (temporarily, as it turned out) get their man and woman in the end, in a bloody ambush that the new film stages no less graphically than Penn did (and, for those interested in accuracy, on the very road where it actually happened). This time, however, it’s presented as a bloodbath necessary to deflate the popularity the criminals had amassed, and followed by a parade bringing the death car into the nearby Louisiana town where swarms of fans surround and try to touch it.

The director of “The Highwaymen” is John Lee Hancock, who might be described as square in terms of both his choice of material and his stylistic preferences. He’s previously made such pictures as “The Rookie,” “The Blind Side” and “The Alamo,” all of which gave a heroic aura to their protagonists; even Ray Kroc came off pretty well as the iconic American entrepreneur in “The Founder.” The same sort of treatment is applied to Hamer and Gault here.

To be sure, the latter has fallen on hard times and likes the bottle (or flask) a bit too much, but he proves a more genial, and often quite resourceful, partner to the laconic, severe Hamer, who’s fared more successfully in his personal life, having married well to the pretty, socially prominent Gladys (Kim Dickens), whose resistance to his going back on the road crumbles in the face of his commitment to justice. The script by John Fusco also uses the differences between the two to highlight Gault’s doubts about Hamer’s extreme methods and his dismissal of concern about the bloody, unintended consequences they sometimes bring (as when the use of a snitch results in his death). But such concerns are not allowed to seriously undermine the film’s admiration for Hamer as a man determined to do, as you might say, what needs to be done.

There’s also a “mentorship” subplot in terms of an education in the techniques of the manhunt the men give to callow Dallas deputy Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who knew Bonnie and Clyde during their youth and can identify them; he’s recruited to join the Louisiana ambush that Hamer and Gault arrange for the desperados in league with the local sheriff (David Born) and the father of one of the pair’s confederates (W. Earl Brown), and the kid gets an initiation into the brutal side of policing in the process.

As for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Hancock will brook none of the romanticizing of Penn, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They’re depicted, in fleeting footage, by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert, as stone-cold killers, devoted to keeping up their public appearances without any concern for their victims. When the ambush arrives and the camera focuses on their faces as they realize the end has come, they take on the look of the mannequins they have been, at greater remove, throughout.

As for the film’s style, it can be described as classically reserved, with deliberate pacing and carefully-shaped imaging. Hancock, cinematographer John Schwartzman (working in earth-toned widescreen) and editor Robert Frazen can pull off an action sequence when they want to (most notably in a circular car chase in a bone-dry Oklahoma field that raises a blizzard of orange dust) or ratchet up tension (as in the final ambush), but for the most part the film is slow and laid back, sometimes monotonously so. That allows one, however, to appreciate the period detail in Michael Corenblith’s production design and Daniel Orlandi’s costumes, though the visuals will undoubtedly lose something in streaming format; the film really benefits from a big screen.

The approach also permits you to appreciate the niceties of performance. One can take pretty much for granted that Costner and Harrelson will play off one another well, the one’s sternness set off nicely by the other’s more extrovert attitude, and when the more dramatic moments occur, they savor them. (They also put across the inevitable episodes about aging like vaudeville troopers.)

But Hancock’s leisurely method extents to providing the supporting cast with opportunities to register strongly, and they’ve been well chosen to seize on them. Brown makes colorful work of the turncoat who puts Bonnie and Clyde in the lawmen’s line of fire, but even his expert turn is overshadowed by veteran William Sanderson’s single scene as Clyde’s father, who’s resigned to his son’s ultimate fate and whose conversation with Hamer about it carries considerable poignancy.

At the opposite extreme, Bates has a field day as the aggressive, cynical Ferguson, bringing theatrical energy to every sequence she’s in, in the process reducing John Carroll Lynch, as the advisor who persuades her to bring the ex-Rangers on board, to distinctly second-string status. Mann is fine, if a bit too goofy, as the neophyte deputy who gets schooled by the veterans.

But these are but the more prominent figures in a large cast. There are what amounts to a telling series of pointed cameos by well-chosen actors along the entire convoluted journey Hamer and Gault take in their pursuit of Parker and Barrow.

“The Highwaymen” will never replace “Bonnie and Clyde” in the cinematic canon, but in its restrained, almost contemplative fashion it offers a solidly made, consistently interesting docu-dramatic take on the hunt for the notorious duo, though one with a very obvious point of view.