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Steve Bannon was frightening when we did not know too much about him. There were few recordings of him speaking when he helped elect Donald Trump, and he liked his stature as the left’s arch nemesis (he spoke favorably about Darth Vader). For many viewers, the documentary The Brink will be the first real introduction to Bannon, as both a puppet master and an ordinary man. Director Alison Klayman does not have any sit-down interviews, and instead prefers a cinéma vérité approach. Her style does Bannon no favors, and parts of the film unfold like a far-right version of This Is Spinal Tap.
Klayman picks up with Bannon after he already left the White House. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, the administration ousted him, and Trump humiliated him on Twitter. When we see Bannon in his handsome Capitol Hill rowhouse, he is not licking his wounds, but looking for the next way he can ingratiate himself. Soft-spoken and schlubby, he seems more like a hobbyist than a supervillain. Still, his access to power is frightening: After the failed attempt to get Alabama’s Roy Moore elected, Bannon finds himself among far-right leaders all over Europe.
Bannon spends his days trying to normalize extremism, and to his credit, he is actually pretty good at it. He disarms people with his self-awareness and his well developed sense of irony, so his strategy is to introduce toxic ideology while people let their defenses down. Parts of the film unfold like a thriller because this strategy just might work. In a debate with the “never Trump” neocon David Frum, Bannon almost seems reasonable because Frum cannot move beyond attacking the President’s character.
Like all far-right figures, Steve Bannon hates being called racist. There is a stretch in the film where he toys with the word “globalist,” and by using it to describe George Soros, the term takes on an antisemitic edge. There is a disarming scene where an aggressive journalist from The Guardian calls him on his bullshit, and Bannon has no response for his ongoing reliance on dog whistles. Once you see through his trick, he loses all his power. Darth Vader can choke people with his mind, while Steve Bannon takes meetings in cargo shorts.
We know from recent history that Bannon’s post-Trump efforts have more failures than successes. Klayman does not humiliate him, exactly, but she uses hindsight and context as effective editing tools. When Bannon talks about the importance of keeping Republican control of the House, it is all the more satisfying because we already know what happens. The more interesting moments are what happen in between his endless meetings and conference calls. For such an influential and wealthy figure, he has little interest in the outside world or self care. When Bannon is in Venice for the premiere of another documentary about him, he stays in his hotel suite instead of enjoying one the most beautiful cities in the world. Between this and the private jets, Bannon has expensive taste for someone who purportedly wants to help the working class, and he never once thinks to address this irony.
You may have heard about American Dharma, the other Bannon documentary. It was directed by Errol Morris, a filmmaker who is known for his probing interviews. I have not seen Dharma (there are no plans to release it), but parts of The Brink are a rebuke of his interrogation style. In debates and interviews, Bannon can be smooth and alert. The façade erodes only when he appears visibly drunk or makes the same dumb one-liner to his younger female fans. This Is Spinal Tap had affection for its subjects, but Klayman has no such sympathy. She’s cautious around Bannon and maybe even respects him, and by the end of the film, she pushes him to the fringe of a more worrying, pervasive worldwide movement.
If The Brink were merely a takedown of Bannon, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. What makes it an intense, fascinating documentary is how it uses Bannon to contemplate modern politics. His strategic masterstroke is to realize that the political struggle is always advancing forward. While the left focuses on Trump’s latest tweet or whatever, Bannon finds smaller movements and alienated people he can engage. He is not the best player in this game, and we only think he is because he is always a few moves ahead.
The Brink opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.