By Michael Sandlin.
Seeing populist political shyster Steve Bannon’s slow professional demise play out over the course of Alison Klayman’s documentary The Brink might be pitiable if Bannon was just your average morally bankrupt politico. But Bannon is not exactly a sympathetic figure, especially considering he proved to be too right wing even for the Orange Führer himself, Donnie Trump. The CV of former Trump advisor and Breitbart commandant includes such accomplishments as being chief architect of what we know as the “alt-right,” as well as conceiving the now-infamous Muslim ban. Besides these warm humanitarian achievements, he has also emerged as the USA’s most publicly visible white supremacist since David Duke: Bannon was the brains behind Trump’s “both sides are to blame” remarks pertaining to the 2018 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in which homegrown Nazi James Fields drove his car into innocent bystanders. And what’s more, Bannon now has ambitions to re-create the world in his own degenerate image.
And for Bannon, image is terribly important. What’s immediately fascinating in the film is to observe how Bannon attempts to sartorially symbolize populism itself. His carefully contrived middle-American couch-potato fashion sense comes off as an effective (and affected) tool in exuding Everyman aura. His slovenly double-shirted look goes nicely with his beer paunch and Homer Simpson five-o’-clock shadow. It’s a clever ruse to distract from his snooty Harvard Business School background and former life as a capital-accumulating Gordon Gekko wannabe at perennially corrupt Goldman Sachs.
We also learn that Bannon refuses to give up on his dream of becoming America’s answer to Leni Riefenstahl (although judging by the quality of his past directorial work he’s more like a neofascist Ed Wood). Early on, Klayman flashes brief clips of Bannon’s childish propaganda romp Torchbearers (starring Duck Dynasty multi-millionaire faux hillbilly Phil Robertson), which then leads into the first of many unhinged Bannon moments. Here he launches into an overexcited recollection of an epiphany he had while visiting Nazi death camp Birkenau. Bannon’s barroom gregariousness on this uneasy topic is disturbing and revealing, to say the least. He marvels at the “precision German engineering” that made Birkenau such a perfect “industrialized compound for mass murder.” He enviously contemplates the moral detachment of the Nazi desk jockeys who coolly administered this genocidal endeavor without questioning their role in it (Bannon clearly never consulted Hannah Arendt on “the banality of evil”). And it’s this sort of emotional distancing from the consequences of his own words and actions that he tries to perfect in himself and his coterie of lost-soul far-right sidekicks.
Klayman’s film begins with Bannon on a smugly triumphal high, fresh from his advisory role in Donald Trump’s loss of the popular vote in the 2016 US Presidential election. From this auspicious start, we’re whisked though what proves to be a steady succession of embarrassing political failures for Bannon, as we witness the political capital once generated by his anti-establishmentarian populist schtick slowly drain away over two eventful years. First, he’s canned by the Trump administration after his insults directed at Trump are exposed in Michael Wolff’s dish-fest Fire and Fury. Then after leading a failed campaign supporting sex-offending shitkicker Roy Moore’s senatorial bid, Bannon loses his radio show and his influential position at Breitbart News. Then his major US financial backers abandon him. Cue violins.
Once he reaches political pariah status in America, Bannon jets off to Europe to act as a political consultant to neofascist fringe groups who still think he’s a viable asset. It’s here, in the original cradle of white supremacism, that consummate anti-elitist Bannon treats himself to five-star hotels and posh dinners with the rising stars of the Eurotrash far-right. Over wine-soaked gourmet meals he instructs these high-society crypto-fascists on how to go about refashioning their respective countries into “old fashioned democratic Christian” strongholds as a defense against the Islamic bugbear. But his lovely European sojourn can’t save him from the US congressional midterm elections in 2018, which he knows will be a referendum on his own extremist political agenda.
If Bannon and his Breitbartian troupe of misfit political tinhorns have accomplished anything, it’s their advancements in the art of denial. One of Bannon’s favorite defensive tactics is to use hokey self-deprecation to try and pre-empt any potential criticisms hypothetical liberal viewers might direct at him. But after his political failings begin to have real consequences, Bannon finds it increasingly difficult to smile in the face of criticism. There’s a key scene in the latter half of the film in which a Guardian journalist calls out Bannon on his casual use of anti-Semite “dog whistle” terminology such as the derogatory “globalist” label describing the alt-right’s favorite scapegoat, Jewish billionaire George Soros. Of course, Bannon steadfastly denies the term has any connection to anti-Semitism and then gets slightly catty: “You know you’re wrong,” he snaps. It’s a subtle but sure sign: Bannon is losing.
In an even more telling moment, Klayman records a Bannon aide commenting on the breaking news of the mail bomber who in 2018 sent badly built pipe bombs to key political figures of the liberal left. In a glaring example of the sort of Eichmann-like moral detachment in Bannon’s inner circle, one aide posits that the bomber must have been a leftist because right wingers aren’t prone to violence (“Timothy McVeigh wasn’t one of us,” he says – without the slightest hint of irony). As a bitch-slap riposte, the film quickly cuts to news coverage revealing the identity of the stumblebum bomber as Cesar Sayoc – a garden variety MAGA nutjob. In this way, Klayman brilliantly sets up the perfect rebuke to Bannon’s abdication of responsibility for the violence his poisonous rhetoric had helped incite.
What’s also noticeable as the film progresses is that Bannon’s politics are more explicitly Nazified (no “neo-“ prefix needed) than his critics in the mainstream media seem to recognize. In several public speaking engagements captured in the film Bannon specifically advocates “economic nationalism” and constantly credits “divine providence” with the rise of the global populist movement he imagines he’s spearheading. Naturally Bannon counts on most of his cornpone acolytes as being too historically ignorant to grasp the loaded use of these terms, both of which have seriously sinister pasts. Firstly, “economic nationalism” was the Third Reich’s pet economic philosophy from its inception. And Hitler would often attribute his own rise to power to the mystical work of “divine providence.” In fact, Bannon’s anti-establishment stand-up routine begins to resemble a nostalgic Third Reich tribute act, without the swastika-emblazoned Hugo Boss costumery.
But it’s not until the film’s final minutes, when Klayman shows the results of the 2018 congressional midterms finally rolling in, that Bannon’s mask of Aryan invincibility really begins to slip. The final scenes document Bannon’s unraveling as he barks mindless abuse at his underlings over the phone – which is all strangely reminiscent of the infamous Hitler bunker rant in 2004’s Downfall. Although he professes to thrive on bad publicity from the “liberal” media, Bannon’s modus operandi of stoking public outrage to advance his own career backfires in ways he was never clever enough to foresee.
Klayman’s film does stellar work in exposing the nasty-bastard private Bannon lurking behind the amiable self-deprecating public raconteur: as you might guess, the real Bannon is a hypocrite and habitual liar, not to mention a rancorous anti-Semite, racist, Islamophobe, and misogynist. The advantage The Brink has over Errol Morris’s stylistically busy Bannon film American Dharma (2018) is that there is, thankfully, no art to it. Klayman’s largely textbook observational approach works wonders on a man who eventually falls victim to his own welcoming attitude toward scrutiny from the left. As a filmmaker she achieves what the seemingly complacent Morris couldn’t: she penetrates Bannon’s protective self-mythologizing force field and exposes the quotidian reality of his lonely Sisyphean political struggle.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.