A new documentary shows both the charisma and odiousness of Steve Bannon
The charm of odious men is overrated. At a certain point in “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s brisk documentary tag-along behind far-right pot-stirrer Steve Bannon, an admirer tells Bannon that although he might have just come off poorly in a on-stage debate, at least he’ll have surprised and maybe even converted those who came expecting to see a monster.
Bannon’s not a monster. As shown in this coolly observant film, he’s an avuncular, witty, energetic presence whose views of the world are founded on hating people who don’t look like him and are less well off. Does his bonhomie make him more dangerous? Certainly. But “The Brink” also reveals an operator who’s not as savvy as he sounds and whose own influence on US and foreign politics isn’t as potent as he thinks.
Klayman follows Bannon from just after he’s been booted from the Trump White House in August 2017, following the violence surrounding the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies, up to the immediate aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections. Most of that time is spent in Europe, courting various politicians of the nationalist/neo-fascist persuasion and trying to convince them to join forces in a larger movement overseen (of course) by Steve Bannon. Basically, he wants to build a global network of anti-globalists.
“The Brink” doesn’t underline that paradox with a Sharpie, nor does it need to. The contradictions of being Bannon rise to the surface through fly-on-the-wall camerawork and unobtrusive editing. Example: Bannon assures a reporter that he “would not take money from foreigners,” and we immediately cut to him embracing Miles Kwok, the billionaire owner of Guo Media who we later learn has invested $100 million in a Rule of Law fund managed by Bannon.
The movie is full of such telling hypocrises. Klayman understands that most people are happy to hoist themselves on their own petard when you stick a camera in their face. As someone who built his own news empire, Breitbart Media, before being forced out of it, Bannon knows it, too, yet he’s powerless to resist the spotlight. He’s sure he’s the story, even if the story is somewhat different from what he thinks.
The director maintains a mostly silent presence behind the camera, with Bannon wryly addressing this enemy in the room once or twice. Her polite correction of his pronunciation of a Chinese politician’s name — Klayman directed “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2014) about the dissident artist — is acknowledged and then ignored, and only the overlapping speeches by victorious Democrat congresswomen toward the end directly address the entrenched maleness of Steve Bannon’s world.
(A different Bannon documentary, called “American Dharma” and directed by Cambridge-based filmmaker Errol Morris, premiered on the festival circuit last September but has not yet been picked up for distribution. “The Brink” was co-produced by Magnolia Pictures, which has a ready-made distribution partner in Landmark Theatres, until recently owned by the same parent company.)
“The Brink” is useful for visually IDing the many far-right politicians Bannon meets during his travels across Europe — Nigel Farage in Great Britain, Mischail Modrikamen of Belgium, Marine Le Pen of France — as well as American backers like former Goldman Sachs president John Thornton. Klayman shows her subject pushing his propaganda film “Trump@War” (“What would [Nazi documentarian] Leni Riefenstahl do?” he wonders mockingly) in between speaking at conservative rallies and “patriot dinners” across America.
He’s greeted as a savior by those proud to call themselves “deplorables,” who here tend to be white, middle or upper/middle class, and more than receptive to the “isms” — racism, nationalism, nativism — Bannon pushes with a soft sell that lets them sleep at night. Still, “The Brink” shows the moment slipping away from him in the United States, and as the midterms near even he senses the jig is up, if only temporarily. Since the midterms, Klayman notes, Bannon has become less welcome in Europe, but he’s hardly in exile. “The Brink” shows a salesman tirelessly peddling poison door to door and knowing it’s only a matter of time before someone lets him in.
Directed by Alison Klayman. At Kendall Square. 91 minutes. Unrated (as R: language)