Dir: Alison Klayman
To me, the title of Alison Klayman’s documentary about Steve Bannon speaks to where we are as a planet. We’re walking up to the line in so many ways, and on the political side, it seems Bannon exists to give us that one last push over the edge.
Bannon is a far right strategist who co-founded Breitbart News in 2007 and became a late addition to the Donald Trump campaign in 2016, coming in as campaign CEO. He now credits himself with Trump’s win, as do many people, to be fair to him. For most of The Brink, Klayman follows Bannon after he has left the Trump administration, as he begins to form what he and his allies call ‘The Movement’; an initiative to unite the far right parties across Europe to increase their influence.
Bannon is a loathsome human, he looks like a thumb that gained sentience and that’s the least ugly thing about him. However, he does have an ability to wrap the vileness of his politics in an outward veneer that, when you put yourself in the shoes of the people who believe the poison that emanates from him, you can see why they are drawn to him. For most of the film, Bannon speaks outwardly reasonably, he’s not screaming in the faces of his opponents, indeed in a debate with David Frum he appears to have an easy - if not especially insightful - humour to his delivery. This difference between tone and content is what makes him dangerous.
This is where Klayman’s approach works well. She’s not a Michael Moore, deftly picking the worst moments her subject exhibits and drawing them together, she at least appears to be trying to show a fuller picture of Bannon. What emerges is a slippery character. Whenever another person on camera with him begins to push the rhetoric too far, Bannon will end filming, but again, the framing is interesting with him often saying something like “You’ve got everything you need here?”, when he clearly doesn’t mean the question mark. This is one of a couple of recurring refrains that seem designed to allow Bannon to play the nice guy while clearly manipulating people. The other happens every time he poses for a picture with a man and a woman, putting the woman in the middle saying “a rose between two thorns”. Both of these repeated phrases, in a way indicative of how Klayman allows Bannon to make himself look bad, end up feeling very sinister.
Another sinister and slippery side of Bannon, and of his influence, comes across whenever he’s challenged or things look bad on his side. Bannon himself seems most uncomfortable when the inherent racism of his views is questioned. He knows that if he wants to win more people to his cause that there HAS to be plausible deniability on this point (a way, at least, for supporters to say “I’m not racist, but”), the thing is that he hasn’t developed an answer beyond flat denial, it’s one thing he simply doesn’t have an argument on. We see some of this attitude reflected in his staff after the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, who sent homemade bombs to a number of prominent left wing figures and lived in his van, which was covered in Trump paraphernalia, as one of them - again without quite coming out and suggesting a ‘false flag’, says that he finds it surprising, that he’s not sure the bombs were real, and that the left is so much more violent before going on to invoke no true Scotsman over Timothy Mc Veigh. It’s in exchanges like this that we see Bannon’s ideas reach fruition.
That carries over into The Movement, whose meetings of rich white men conspiring to freshly empower the worst of the far right make for the most frightening segments of The Brink, especially in light of the recent success of the Brexit Party and the resurgence of Bannon cohort Nigel Farage. We see Bannon challenged, particularly robustly by Guardian reporter Paul Lewis, and we see him take losses like the US Midterms, but there’s definitely a sense of the momentum going his way overall. That’s why The Brink is more terrifying than a film that would set out to ‘take down’ Bannon more overtly: it shows how horrific his ideas are, how proudly he embraces them and their associations (“How would Leni cut it?” he says of a trailer for a film he’s making, half joking, half winking) and how, if he’s not entirely winning, he’s also not losing.