Steve Bannon is the definition of a “chucklehead.” I only partially mean that as an insult. Throughout The Brink, director Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, there’s seemingly nothing that Trump’s former campaign advisor and chief strategist can’t laugh off, brush aside, or counter with a well timed quip, half-hearted “I’m sorry you feel that way” apology, or a stream of expletives that further establishes his egotistical dominance in an argumentative situation. As The Brink showcases quite frighteningly and unambiguously, it’s both what makes Bannon so charming and charismatic, but also one of the last people on the face of the planet who should be given any degree of political authority. By depicting Bannon in his natural zone and element, The Brink both humanizes and demonizes its subject at the same time. There’s a clear editorial bias on Klayman’s part, but it also embraces Bannon’s carefully calculated “what you see is what you get” everyman persona, resulting in a film that can be read either as tribute or condemnation depending on the viewer. Does Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) call Bannon on his bullshitting ways? Yes, but this isn’t anything that Bannon can’t shrug off his shoulders, and that makes me question the film’s overall effectiveness as either an exposee or propaganda. It’s a bit of a null set, but fascinating and enthralling nonetheless.
Klayman starts following Bannon in the fall of 2017, not long after he resigned his position in the Trump administration. Working from the hub of his former publishing empire, “the Breitbart Embassy,” in Washington D.C. and travelling around the world to speak to other like-minded right wing leaders, Bannon hasn’t been expressly campaigning for Trump or endorsing many candidates (save for Alabama’s Roy Moore, which didn’t work out too well), but he has been touting the benefits of “economic nationalism” and “old school Christian democracy.” While he admits to hating most of the time he spent working in the West Wing of the White House and that he’s lost of a lot of his connections to Trump and the rest of the administration, he believes his pursuit of a political right wing tsunami around the globe is the Lord’s work. He sees his role in global politics not as a one of a pundit, but as a missionary, sent to convert the heathen masses over to his point of view.
That’s a lot of big and pious talk from someone who seemingly only brings up religion when he needs to goose the biggest supporters of the Republican Party. At no point throughout The Brink does Bannon ever show a single sign of being genuinely religious, but he displays plenty of empty, everyman charms. He’s chatty, self-effacing, and sometimes even down to Earth; usually sporting an ear to ear smile when faced with the toughest of crowds. The best moment of The Brink captures his often confounding demeanor brilliantly: while sitting down with a journalist in Rome that’s brutally (and rightfully) taking him to task for cozying up to politicians with ties to white supremacists, the reporter – without missing a beat – tells Bannon to stop smirking because it’s deeply unsettling and unbecoming of their conversation. Bannon’s voice raises slightly at times, but the whole meeting ends with the journalist leaving angrier than he walked in and the interview subject trying to smooth things over between them without ever apologizing for anything. His open contempt for even being there doesn’t manifest itself as anger, but in a manner akin to a cartoon character admitting that they’ve been a “bad widdle boy.” Almost every interaction Bannon has with his objectors plays out like this throughout The Brink, but this marks the only time in Klayman’s film that someone might be articulating exactly what many audience members might be thinking about the documentary’s controversial subject.
It’s clear that Bannon doesn’t give a single, solitary shit about what anyone thinks of him, either personally or professionally, which is both admirable and aggrandizing in equal measure. He doesn’t even seem to understand any human emotions other than greed or envy, never once talking about any sort of social or political issue without reiterating the fact that he used to be an economist and that he doesn’t care who wins as long as he’s on the winning side of history and finance. Klayman’s desire to use Bannon’s overall affability to more or less hang himself doesn’t totally backfire, but it also isn’t particularly effective in illustrating what makes him such a dangerous, polarizing, and beloved political mastermind.
Bannon says and does many things throughout the course of The Brink that seem patently ridiculous: producing a cheaply made bit of propaganda for GOP fundraising purposes, batting away protestors with jokes that wouldn’t cut it in the Catskills, repeatedly referring to himself in the third person when it doesn’t even make comedic or dramatic sense to do so, waxing poetic about the fine German engineering that went into the construction of the Birkenau death camps (within the context of talking about a film made with Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson), and curiously never questioning why his trusted Muslim aide, Raheem, has managed to stick around so cheerfully. Klayman watches almost all of these events and layers to Bannon’s fragile moral character without commenting on them. Whenever she does interject or object, Bannon butters her up and the film simply moves on. At one point in The Brink, Klayman, off camera, asks why Bannon has embraced his supporters being called “deplorables,” and her subject, in a roundabout way, ends up favourably comparing her to Leni Riefenstahl. The worst part of that is how Bannon isn’t entirely wrong.
The Brink tracks similarly to how people read Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Those already in the tank for Bannon’s particular blend of populism and fascism will watch The Brink and see him as an unflappable hero. Those who think he’s evil, delusional, and toxic will only have their notions of him reinforced. Bannon’s Red Bull and Kombucha fuelled charm offensive never lets up for a second throughout The Brink, and it’s the type of real life performance art that one either sees through immediately or buys into as gospel. It’s compelling to behold, but it’s also dangerous when taken at face value.
The Brink is lightly critical of Bannon’s desire to spread isolationism around the world, but it also unwittingly gives the man a platform. At this point in his career, Bannon has nothing to lose, and The Brink is like giving a psychopath aboard a gushing off-shore oil rig a flamethrower. Sure, there’s plenty of water that will eventually put any fires out, and the person who started them will either appear like an idiot or a badass depending on how one looks at it, but the damage left behind will last for ages. In much the same way, The Brink makes for compelling and sometimes uniquely entertaining viewing. Politically and morally, however, I’m not exactly sure what Klayman was hoping to achieve here.
The Brink opens at Canada Square in Toronto on Friday, April 12, 2019. It opens in Montreal of May 3 and expands to additional Canadian cities throughout the spring.
Check out the trailer for The Brink: