Alison Klayman establishes in the opening minutes of her Steve Bannon portrait “The Brink” what a moral Superfund site her subject is. The former executive chair of the far-right wing Breitbart News site recalls a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau in the course of making his Phil Robertson documentary “Torchbearer.” What moves Bannon about the Nazi death camps isn’t the memory of the incredible number of Jews murdered there. The evidence of precision planning as well as long discussions by men from Hugo Boss and Mercedes regarding making the death camp a well-functioning extermination machine…these are the things that elicit Bannon’s admiration.
That sort of cold calculus also suggests why Bannon gives Klayman the incredible access she receives for this documentary about the right wing media demagogue. Bannon sees any media coverage of him as a tool for converting others to his odious “economic nationalist” crusade. He smugly predicts to The Guardian’s Paul Lewis that his interview will cause 20% of Lewis’ readers to support or even join his movement.
This former Trump strategist’s persuasiveness lies in his slickness at twisting acceptable buzz phrases into something vaguely socially acceptable. Dropping such buzz phrases as “being on the right side of history” feels ironic given the history Bannon supports thrives on the tyranny of the majority. Economic nationalism’s allegedly neutral philosophy supposedly cares little for factoring in race, sex, or sexual orientation. Yet adherents of Bannon’s philosophy see nothing wrong in excluding such hated minorities on precisely those grounds. Nor does quoting from Abraham Lincoln or citing his strong interest in history and politics make Bannon a rational deep thinker who just comes from a different political perspective.
As Klayman’s film repeatedly shows, her odious subject’s way with words most resembles the smoothness of the fast-talking hustler or the magician nimbly misdirecting the audience’s attention. It’s Bannon’s actions that paint a truer picture of who he is politically. For someone who claims to lack a prejudicial bone in his body, comfortably sharing a dinner with such fun folks as Mischael Modrihamen of People’s Party Belgium or Kent Eheroth of the Swedish Democrats contradicts those claims of tolerance. Modrihamen and Eheroth happen to belong to the type of European Far Right movements where deploring chain migration and publicly advocating neo-fascist positions are par for the course.
Klayman nails Bannon’s moral vermin-infested hide to the cinematic wall without needing to resort Michael Moore-style in-your-face confrontation. She demonstrates the patience to wait until Bannon immolates himself in ways large or small.
The director certainly has plenty of opportunities to find such moments. “The Brink” follows Bannon from a period between his Fall 2017 departure from the Trump White House in the wake of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march through the 2018 midterm elections. The Bannon slime trail Klayman follows leads her from being politely excluded from a meeting with Blackwater’s Erik Prince to GOP fundraising events where attendees consider meeting the Breitbart editor in the flesh a highlight of their lives.
Fortunately, reasonable viewers will not need a vomit bag to make it through this cinematic immersion in far right-wing vileness. It’s hard for this former naval officer to maintain claims of being on the side of destiny after losing the financial patronage of the billionaire Mercers and disastrously backing Republican Senate pedophile candidate Roy Moore to the bitter end. Repeated close-ups of Bannon’s pronouncedly overweight and beard-stubbled face makes him look more like a physical and political grotesquerie.
Emotional grotesquerie can be found in seeing Republicans eager to meet the former White House Chief Strategist. Unsurprisingly, most of these sympathetic supporters of Bannon’s worldview are white, middle-aged or older, or both. When one Bannon fan holds up a sign praising this self-proclaimed economic nationalist’s alleged talent for honest straight-talk, it feels as if giving open and unapologetic racist dog whistles are what the fan means by such “honest” talk.
Bannon shows himself to be an unoriginal thinker. The Movement, the name for his political clearinghouse for European radical right-wing parties, sounds more like a metaphorical description of the political turds being dropped by these parties in the punch bowl of liberal democracies’ elections. The quip the ex-Goldman Sachs officer uses for photo ops with women, “a rose between two thorns,” assumes Bannon possesses a degree of savage wit or vicious behavior sadly undemonstrated in Klayman’s film. Even his supposedly noble claims of “defending Western Civilization” comes across as a rationalization for protecting sexist and racist attitudes.
Bannon also demonstrates he’s a terrible boss. Breitbart London Editor Raheem Kassam may have helped Bannon connect with EU Far Right groups for The Movement. But the American political strategist has no on-camera hesitation about covertly reining in Kassam while also characterizing Brits as inherently lazy in a particularly insulting way.
Ironically, it’s the British political journalists who do a far better job of holding Bannon’s feet to the fire than the American political journalists. The American political journalists, such as a Politico representative, get treated as honored guests at a sneak preview of Bannon’s new pro-Trump film. British journalists from such outlets as The Guardian and Good Morning Britain relentlessly put Bannon on the defensive over his eagerness to work with racists and neo-fascist groups such as the Brothers Of Italy.
However, it would be a mistake to completely dismiss Bannon as a demagogic fraud. He is correct that the Right has used talk radio as an effective political weapon while the Left has just politically sucked its thumb regarding this broadcast medium. It’s also a nice bit of vicious timing that Bannon debuts his pro-Trump propaganda film “Trump @ War” on the anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” speech.
Nor should the viewer assume Bannon has abandoned his involvement in EU electoral politics. The Filip De Winters, Kent Eheroths, and other Far Right-wingers may keep Bannon at arm’s length. But that distancing doesn’t necessarily mean the former Breitbart bigwig’s services are entirely unwelcome.
Klayman’s film definitely doesn’t present images that make the so-called economic nationalist the hero of his own life (pace Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield). Instead, by citing such events as the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, “The Brink” shows the harmful logical consequences of the hate-filled viewpoints Bannon enables.
The former CEO of Trump’s presidential bid would have you believe the film’s title references his hero Abraham Lincoln. There was a time when the famed president was being pressured by his contemporaries to resign from office. Trump’s former adviser sees himself in a situation similar to Lincoln’s. In fact, it seems as if Bannon either sees himself as a modern-day transformational figure or the man who enabled Donald Trump to become one.
A more honest assessment of Klayman’s observationally horrifying film would attach a far different meaning to the title. Thanks to people like Bannon, politically unleashed racists have pushed liberal secular democracies to the brink of extinction. Whether a way out exists is a point Klayman leaves open.
(“The Brink” opens April 5, 2019 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas (1 Embarcadero Center, SF) and the Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley). For further information about the film go to www.thebrinkfilm.com .)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment