The Pitch: Huckster. Traveling salesman. Bullshit slinger. White House Chief Strategist. Steven Kevin Bannon.
The political strategist, alt-right guru, and enemy of the press gets his second documentary treatment in Alison Klayman’s The Brink, an aural, open-ended journal entry about Bannon. He’s free from employment under Trump, and is out in the world courting European politicians with his nationalist ideals. Soft-spoken, strategically edgy, and easily collapsible, the film is a perfect condemnation of Bannon in that it lets him do that for himself. Ranging from an odd bird, to an orator of fire, to a man of practiced manners, Bannon is seen over a year just doing his thing. He drinks Red Bull in his weirdly Americana-driven home, with starred carpets and ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ imagery. He courts and sells his support to Republicans in hotels. He shoots himself in the foot, over and over, looking to make his next big score as a speaker for the extreme right, hoping to expand his brand of nationalist hype globally. And most curiously, he’s on the brink of madness.
Reminiscent of Weiner, Hearts of Darkness, and other documented follies of men gone egomaniacal, The Brink is an unflinching glance at one of modern America’s most notorious.
Slammin’ Bannon?: The Brink is not flat-out propaganda. Nor is it a “fuck Bannon” cry with loaded visuals and slogans. But it certainly isn’t on his side, either. This is the Maysles school of observation, and about as close to objective observation as one can get. And since Bannon had already agreed to appear in Errol Morris’ American Dharma (and is a fledgling filmmaker himself), one can easily assume that Bannon doesn’t mind the attention, no matter how unflattering he might come across. You know him from the red-faced Time cover, the schlub photos, and the repugnant policy decisions. But who the hell is the strategist in cargo shorts?
The Brink isn’t interested in a full tome, but rather in expressing a character and a mindset in short order. Sure, Bannon recants his successes to Klayman, and is happy to pull out old Harvard headshots and campaign ads, but the best part of The Brink is its sense of a lost man, here and now. Out from the power promised by Trump, Bannon’s here just trying to make a new move. Think of it like a mid-life crisis. Or more eerily, like a junkie looking for his next big score.
There’s Bannon the back-room brand. He negotiates and solicits his endorsements to congressional hopefuls, like Michigan’s Lena Epstein, who recently had a baby (“You know, I was hoping President Trump would sign my belly.”) Bannon hems and haws on talk radio in his military fatigues, bragging that radio’s still a ‘powerful weapon’ for the right. Bannon loves his presence, and feels powerful in his home turf. But Klayman pulls no punches. Bannon’s intercut with radio producers who couldn’t care less about his globalist braggadocio. And in a golden moment of deadpan, news of Roy Moore’s allegations are brought to Bannon’s attention mid-broadcast.
We see Bannon repeat the same talking points over and over about taking back liberties, and how his allies aren’t racists and nativists, with an eerie smirk on his face the entire time. The scariest things to take away from the film? For one, Bannon is reasonably likeable. His voice is fairly calming, he’s not given to cussing (unless pushed, which, just wait). And he’s self-effacing, happy to make bad jokes in the Catskills fashion about ex-wives and liking tough women. Two, he’s not ashamed to twist history to his own ends. Here’s a guy who in the first five minutes of the film takes a moment to admire the amount of discipline Nazi engineering displayed in Auschwitz. He admires Lincoln because 16 was a great rebel (and not a unifier or great orator or anything like that).
And in the end, because of the repetitive nature of the film – the endless talks, meetings, buzzwords – Bannon looks like a guy desperately trying to replicate the biggest hit of his career. He’s marketing himself as the voice of the maligned, when one starts to suspect that he just thinks it had the best engagement in the analytics report. So why wouldn’t he want to sequelize his Trump run? (He even brands it “The Movement” in design meetings.) It’s all hyper-revealing, and at once hilarious and harrowing.
The obvious should be stated up front: this ain’t gonna convert a single soul. In a current and admittedly cynical climate of clinging to sides, you’re not going to spring The Brink on a gaggle of Lacoste neo-Nazis and get them to recant. But if you’re hot for juice in the fight against dirtbags like Steve Bannon, well, prepare to know your enemy, up-close and uncomfortably personal. And to unknowing cineastes, stumbling onto this in a political documentary playlist in the future, be prepared to see what motivates hate and mania. Hint: it’s money, fame, clout. The usual.
Shades of Gray-to-White: If there’s one ‘must-see’ component to The Brink? It’s the literal whitening of Bannon. We see Bannon in a tumultuous period, aging from roughly 63 to 64, from the summer of 2017 to fall 2018. A year should not make a man turn ghostly white, but it happens. Bannon’s hair shocks back like that of Doc Brown, the vision of a man who’s seen terrible things. A man burdening himself with dirty secrets, hateful thoughts, and a desperate lack of financial security. It’s like seeing the painting of Dorian Gray walk the streets.
It’s all gallows political savagery, and dark comedy as well. The Brink lucks into this geek show, or public health warning, whatever you want to call it. Bannon ages before our very eyes, and it’s a fascinating reminder of what this kind of work can do to the body and the soul.
The Verdict: Running the gamut from grotesque to goofy to genuinely scary, Alison Klayman has assembled a compelling and tight look into the inner workings of modern politics in the Trumpian key. Yell. Court. Beg. Dogwhistle. Repeat. And maybe everybody will get paid. What’s policy? Forget helping the lower classes with tax cuts or healthcare initiatives. Bannon reveals himself as a savage, all by his lonesome. The Brink is a smashing portrait, and Klayman turns his everyday life into creepy, fascinating documentary material.
Where’s It Playing?: Select theaters April 5th, alongside VOD.