It’s depressing enough opening a newspaper these days, so you have to wonder why anyone would voluntarily block out a Saturday night to go see a documentary about Steve Bannon, the right-wing agitprop Svengali. But like the insightful recent Roger Ailes documentary Divide and Conquer, Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall snapshot of the MAGA field marshal, The Brink, turns out to be both stomach-turning and surprisingly enlightening in equal measure. Whether you love or loathe the toxic, race-baiting political strategist, chances are you’ll walk out as firm in your beliefs as you were going in.
Klayman, the award-winning director of the Ai Weiwei documentary Never Sorry, shoots The Brink in mostly cinema-vérité style, providing an unguarded behind-the-curtain intimacy with her subject that’s a bit surprising. Either Bannon is totally clueless about how craven and ethically bankrupt he comes across as in real life or he’s such a media whore that he doesn’t care. Since he spouts the maxim that any headlines are good headlines at several points in The Brink, chances are it’s the latter.
With a face like a side of rare roast beef and a mind that seems to only run at warp-speed, Bannon comes off as occasionally charming. He’s a hard-charging scoundrel who not only knows he’s a scoundrel, he seems to revel in his divisive reputation, convinced with an almost messianic degree of certitude that he’s on the right side of history. When we first meet Bannon in the film, it’s the fall of 2017 — a moment when Bannon is riding high as the Red Bull-swilling self-proclaimed mastermind behind the Trump campaign’s underdog victory in the 2016 election. Hunkered down in the “Breitbart Embassy” in D.C., the rumpled hate-whisperer refers to Trump’s win as “divine providence”.
Then the sh— hits the fan.…
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a far-right lunatic ran over a counter-protester, exposed the dog-whistle rot on the fringe of Trump’s constituency. The president’s response to the tragedy didn’t help matters. And it would be Bannon who, rightly or wrongly, would end up taking the fall. He was cut loose from the West Wing (technically, he resigned). It’s a blessing for the film. Because Bannon, who was never shy with his beliefs even when working in the White House, is freer than ever with Klayman now that he’s off the reservation, desperate to stay relevant in the ever-churning cable news cycle.
Klayman tags along unobtrusively as Bannon crisscrosses the country, giving fiery speeches, throwing red-meat to the red-hat MAGA crowd, preaching common-man populism while flying on private jets and sleeping in five-star hotels. Meanwhile, young Republican candidates for Congress visit him to kiss his ring and get his advice and blessing. Bannon seems to get off on this power and expands his purview beyond domestic politics into uniting right-wing candidates across the globe — some of whom are less discreet than Trump about their rabid opposition to dark-skinned, non-Christian foreigners. Some of these meetings are captured in the film, and it makes you wonder just how smart this guy is to allow a camera into the room where he’s glad-handing clearly evil people.
Bannon sees everything — economics, immigration, elections, interviews — through the lens of war. He’s like a ruddy-faced Sun Tzu with a popped collar. Even after the president who once depended on him turns and starts referring to him on Twitter as “Sloppy Steve,” Bannon charges forward like a scorned, fire-breathing dragon hell-bent on reducing his enemies to black ash and smoldering embers. Bannon keeps claiming that it’s ideology and historical forces that drive him, but it’s clear watching Klayman’s film that fear, paranoia, and air time are both his fuel and his oxygen. The Brink never comes out and says any of this. It doesn’t have to. Bannon is more than up to the task of hanging himself. B+
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