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.