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When Steve Bannon left his position as White House chief strategist less than a week after the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally in August 2017, he was already a notorious figure in Trump's inner circle, and for bringing a far-right ideology into the highest echelons of American politics. Unconstrained by an official post - though some say he still has a direct line to the White House - he became free to peddle influence as a perceived kingmaker, turning his controversial brand of nationalism into a global movement. THE BRINK follows Bannon through the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States, shedding light on his efforts to mobilize and unify far-right parties in order to win seats in the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections. To maintain his power and influence, the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor reinvents himself - as he has many times before - this time as the self-appointed leader of a global populist movement. Keen manipulator of the press and ...
Taking as its subject Steve Bannon, the so-called "Kingmaker" behind Donald Trump's unexpected 2016 election victory, Alison Klayman's documentary The Brink attempts to portray and engage with the controversial alt-right figure without necessarily crossing the line into hagiography or giving a platform to his hateful and divisive rhetoric. Dubbed "The Great Manipulator" by TIME, Bannon's official position in the Trump administration was Chief White House Strategist, an extraordinary rise to power for the former naval officer better known as Vice President of Goldman Sachs and chief executive of Breitbart News than for anything in his capacity as a politician. Seeing himself as spearheading a global alt-right populist movement, called The Movement (and they say the right has no imagination), Bannon is a heroic truth-teller to some, a personification of a hateful, discriminatory, racist ideology to others, in whose worldview the only good American is a white Christian heterosexual American. And whilst The Brink is perfectly adequate as a documentary, it's limited by its identity as a left-leaning film made by a left-leaning filmmaker for a left-leaning audience. Very few people on the right will see it, and those that do will find nothing therein to stimulate any kind of reassessment of their ideology and/or political affiliations. On the contrary, they'll most likely find it validating.
The film begins in August 2017, a few weeks after Bannon was fired from the White House in the wake of the violence at the white supremacist-organised Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Klayman traces Bannon's disastrous endorsement of Roy Moore as Alabama senator, the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the subsequent break with Trump due to comments made in the book, his time in Europe, and his campaigning during the 2018 midterms. She focuses on his European activities, where his aim is to unify and centralise the various right-wing populist groups under an overarching banner of national and social conservatism, anti-Islam, anti-immigration, counter-globalism, and Euroscepticism (although the film never addresses the inherent contradictions of a global movement built on counter-globalism or a centralised movement made up of groups whose main aims are nationalist). Klayman accompanied Bannon for the duration of his European travels, embedding herself in his inner circle, where she was granted extraordinary access (partly because she didn't have a crew; it was just her and a camera).
Klayman shoots the film in a cinéma vérité fly-on-the-wall style, letting events play out without really commenting on them (although she does question Bannon directly a couple of times). And this non-intrusive style makes sense, allowing some of Bannon's more outrageous comments to speak for themselves. For example, at a rally in Hungary, he states that The Movement will be built on "old school Christian democracy rooted in the European tradition" (so plenty of room for Muslims); he asserts that "divine providence is about human action" (no, he doesn't seem aware of the oxymoron); he repeatedly claims that "hate is energising" and "hate is a motivator"; and in perhaps his most interesting, if perplexing claim, he refers to China, Iran, and Turkey as the "new Axis".
Bannon's opinions on the mainstream media are also interesting, and on this particular point, I don't disagree with him. He believes that because trust in the media is at such a low ebb, the more obsessed they become with people like him, with right-wing policy in general, with criticising Trump, the better it is, as it simply drives their base further into their camp and gives them a free platform. Bannon himself seems to thrive on the outrage he can elicit from the left-wing media, relying on their emotionalism to trip them up. We do see him challenged a couple of times, but only a couple; Paul Lewis of The Guardian has a contentious interview about whether or not some of his statements can be seen as incitements to racism, whilst Susanna Reid of Good Morning Britain (2014) doesn't let him away with anything in relation to the Unite the Right rally (throughout the interview, Piers Morgan sits silently, happily dreaming about what hat to give Trump the next time they meet).
In terms of aesthetics, some of Klayman's editing is very interesting. For example, she intercuts news reports on Cesar Sayoc and the Tree of Life shooting with Bannon arguing that he's not bigoted or racist. Later, she intercuts scenes of migrants being attacked in Germany with Bannon's five-star hotel meetings with right-wing politicians. In another scene, when he insists that he would never take any non-American money because he's too much of a patriot, Klayman cuts to him meeting Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, with whom he subsequently has a behind-closed-doors meeting. Perhaps most powerfully, however, after the disastrous 2018 midterms, over scenes of Bannon raging at his underlings and trying to figure out what could possibly have gone wrong, Klayman plays an audio montage of newly-elected Democrat women speaking about their policies and plans and condemning the kind of hatred upon which Bannon thrives.
For all that, however, the film has some significant flaws. Most egregiously, Klayman assumes her audience is in complete and total agreement with her before she's even said anything - that Bannon is a dangerous purveyor of racial-based hatred and prejudice. Because of this, the documentary remains all surface; she doesn't offer a deep dive into his psychology because why would she when the audience already thinks the same way as her? So, there's a real lack of probing and interrogation. In this sense, it's hard to know what anyone will glean from the film. The very few on the right who see it, will read it as yet more evidence of a left-leaning elitist media determined to crush the right; those on the left will simply have their opinions about Bannon reaffirmed.
With this in mind, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what Klayman accomplishes with the film - it doesn't tell us anything about Bannon we didn't already know, and although it does give us access to his workaday world, it doesn't reveal much about his thought processes or private ideology. In the same sense, it isn't going to change anyone's way of thinking about him. So what was the point? Why give such a hateful and dangerous individual so much attention when you don't have anything in mind other than having your audience nod along with you? At best, the film seems to be suggesting that Bannon is a good example of the banality of evil - Klayman is trying to demystify him, painting him as kind of a slick used car salesman, successfully selling cars which he knows are defective. But really, did he need demystifying? How many people honestly thought he was anything special, or somehow more nefarious than we could ever have imagined?
The film also makes some baffling decisions. For example, after the Roy Moore debacle, a subtitle tells us that Bannon was fired from Breitbart, kicked off his own radio show, and cut off by his billionaire donors. However, if Klayman ever asked him about any of this, it doesn't make the final cut. Indeed, we learn next to nothing of his time at Breitbart; what he stood for, why he was so controversial, why so many people argue that Andrew Breitbart himself would have hated what Bannon did to the site. On the other hand, we do get a scene where he is shown looking at old college photos and remarking on how handsome he used to be. Explosive stuff indeed.
The Brink is a perfectly watchable film, but so too is it perfectly forgettable, which, given the subject and the extraordinary access, is hugely disappointing, and must go down as a missed opportunity. Indeed, as the film ended, the only thought I really had in my head was "Bannon would have loved that". Which is not exactly a good thing.
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