Another Documentary Inadvertently Honors Steve Bannon
By writing about “The Brink,” I risk committing the same fundamental error that its director, Alison Klayman, made in making this documentary: feeding the beast. The problem with “The Brink” is that the character of Steve Bannon is a fiction, and the film only perpetuates the legend that makes this fictional character loom noxiously large. Stephen K. Bannon exists; it would be wrong to dehumanize him in the same way that his political movement dehumanizes so many others who happen to have been born to a religion, a race, a country, a gender other than his own. But the ostensible political mastermind exists only when he’s treated like one. His power exists only because he’s been built up as a strategist and an ideologue, when, in fact, what exists are the effects of his actions, the people who bear the force of his ruthless prejudices.
In “The Brink,” Klayman follows Bannon for about a year—from the fall of 2017 through the midterm elections—as he travels the United States and Europe to speak at rallies and confer with politicians. He is seen working to build a unified, international “populist nationalist” movement, and is trying to help the Republican Party keep control of the House of Representatives. Which is to say that Klayman films the political strategist in conversation mainly with other ideologues of his own ilk, both American and European, and with a couple of wealthy people who share his convictions. It depicts not the private individual but the behind-the-scenes professional activities of the public figure.
Though “The Brink” is made by a filmmaker who, judging by the handful of questions she asks from offscreen, is obviously not sympathetic to Bannon’s political maneuvers, her film nonetheless does them a service: she treats them like ideas and him like a significant public intellectual. The result—despite the film’s presentation of interviews with Bannon by a few journalists who put probing questions to him, and despite depictions of protests against policies and politicians that he promotes—is nonetheless a feature-length commercial for Bannon, and he knows it. Addressing the camera, as if explaining the rationale for agreeing to be followed by Klayman and her camera, he says, “Trump taught me a great lesson: there’s no bad media. . . . and the more the mainstream media gets obsessed with us, it’s gonna be your biggest ally.”
The complicity of Klayman and Bannon involves a peculiar mutual delight in ugliness—where she seemingly holds her nose as she observes and hears it, he flaunts it. In one of the movie’s very first scenes, Bannon discusses a sequence from his movie “Torchbearer,” from 2016, that takes place at Auschwitz, and he praises the filming that he did there: “My shit in Auschwitz rocked.” He then cites Birkenau as “the most haunting place I think I’ve ever been,” and imagines industrial designers working on the plans for the death camp as having “totally detached themselves from the moral horror of it”; it’s a reminder, he says, that “humans can do this—humans that are not devils, but humans that are just humans.” From there, Klayman cuts to Bannon being just human: in 2017, sitting in the so-called Breitbart Embassy, in Washington, D.C., consuming a gross-looking green shake that his nephew and assistant, Sean Bannon, made for him as part of a weight-loss program.
Yet Bannon and Klayman have the same oddly distorted sense of what constitutes human interest: just as Bannon is grimly fascinated by the humanity of the designers of gas chambers and crematoria but doesn’t say anything about the humanity of their victims, so Klayman, throughout the film, captures Bannon in his endearing moments of self-deprecation and clunky humor—his taste for kombucha, his idiosyncrasies of wearing two shirts and clogs, his awareness of his unpopularity with liberals, his embarrassing habit of putting a woman between himself and another man for photo ops, saying, “a rose between two thorns.” But, oddly, there’s precious little humanism; the movie is mainly a display of political organization, of public speechmaking and private strategizing, in which a crucial factor of the human element of politics—psychology, personal motivation—is filtered out.
In the course of the film, Bannon only occasionally lets the mask of political abstractions slip and reveal repellent and dangerous prejudices that underlie the policies that he has advanced. On a limo ride with Bannon through London, Raheem Kassam, the former editor of the city’s Breitbart bureau, looks ruefully out the window and laments, “Literally all Arab stores everywhere,” and Bannon asks him, “When did it flip?,” then scornfully adds, “Look, a sharia bank.” Though Bannon denies that his populist-nationalist movement is racist, he declares his theocratic politics openly: he praises the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s plan to “preserve Hungary’s security and its Christian culture” and adds that he’s “working to build an old-school Christian democracy, rooted in the European tradition.” The one time that Klayman rather clumsily presses Bannon on his appeals to white identity, he shakes it off, saying, “And your point?”
What’s conspicuously, and insidiously, absent from the film is any acknowledgment of the effects of the beliefs and policies that he promotes. Some of the monstrosities of the past two years of American politics—the Muslim ban (Bannon calls it “a necessary jolt to the system”), the hate-filled and deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the mailing of bombs by Cesar Sayoc to political opponents of Donald Trump—appear briefly in the film as video clips and news voice-overs, mere cinematic footnotes to Bannon’s personal energies and visionary schemes. The separation of families, the caging of children, and the deaths of detained children, which resulted from the Administration’s anti-immigration policies, don’t figure in the film at all. Neither does the devastation and deprivation of Puerto Rico under the Administration’s malign neglect. In “The Brink,” the victims have no names and no faces; only the perpetrators do, and, above all, only the ideologue whose successes the movie inadvertently honors with its attention.
Bannon’s celebrity, his glib confidence, and his gruffly breezy intellectual references all give him a veneer of cynical charm; even as Klayman, to all appearances, deplores his doctrines and their successes, she basks in their prominence—the devil gets the good lines. A term that Bannon uses most frequently and most gleefully at his public appearances is “deplorables,” a term used (unfortunately) by Hillary Rodham Clinton to describe radical rightists who support Trump. The function of that word—a cocktail-party euphemism that Clinton used to refer to the presence, in Trump’s circles, of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hatemongers who have no business being anywhere near the White House—is to transform evil into the name of a rock band, making it a badge of pride, comparable to the Bad Brains or the Zombies. In embracing and endorsing the label of “deplorables,” Bannon, in effect, joins his crowd in acknowledging that it feels good to be bad, that it’s a pleasure to inflict pain—that one best exults in oneself by exerting power over others.
The legend of Bannon is that of a self-proclaimed intellectual who is repudiated by intellectuals and marshals the masses to get his revenge. “The Brink” offers no new information or insights to deepen this myth. If the barest elements of political psychology and social pathology are suggested in the course of the film, they’re undercut and banalized by the movie’s homogenized aesthetic, which includes the thumping music of action films and the impersonal authority of title cards and news clips. Like Errol Morris’s “American Dharma,” which premièred at the Venice Film Festival last year (it also screened at the New York Film Festival) and has yet to be distributed, “The Brink” lets Bannon present himself in his own terms while also celebrating his very self-exaltation. The best way to avoid contributing to the cult of personality that Bannon inevitably cultivates is to avoid filming the person. The ostensible veracity of Klayman’s insistently observational format turns out to be blinkered and narrow—inadequate to the political challenge posed by its subject. For broken times, the documentary form itself needs to be taken apart; in an era of deception, unquestioned appearances are inadequate.