‘The Brink’ Review: Portrait of a Political Phantom

Alison Klayman’s observational documentary reveals Steve Bannon as a ghost of politics past.

The Brink
Magnolia Pictures

Political strategist Steve Bannon seems to be a walking anachronism. He deals in references and rationales from other times, recycled to galvanize nostalgic voters. Director Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) wisely points to this at the outset with The Brink, titling the film after an Abraham Lincoln quote Bannon reads aloud on camera. Bannon imagines his political ideals at “the brink of destruction,” so he haunts the hallways whispering words of an epic battle.

Except that it’s a battle in the 1940s? The amount that Auschwitz and Leni Riefenstahl and propaganda are mentioned, you become concerned that he’s stuck in some sort of Downfall meme. Bannon writes political narratives that exploit outrage and obsession and tilt toward neofascism. This film exposes how tired those tropes are.

Bannon is many things. He’s a former investment banker for Goldman Sachs, a former executive at Breitbart News, a Hollywood filmmaker, but mainly he’s a far-right Republican tinkerer. He ushered the Trump administration into office and honed their agenda. After the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — a little too transparently white supremacist — Bannon was cast off of Trump island.

The Brink follows Bannon from Fall 2017, after his departure from a White House position, until the midterm elections the following year. The documentary chronicles his efforts to continue an “economic nationalist” movement rooted in “Christian populism.” It’s basically a Sorkin-esque nightmare of walk-and-talks and conferences and phone calls all complaining about immigrants. He tours the US stoking resentments and fears, vetting local candidates, selling patriotism and his 501(c)4 Citizens of the American Republic.

Ironically, Bannon also wants to cohere a global movement of nationalist politics. The irony is lost on representatives in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, and Italy, and others whose parties are depicted in the film meeting with Bannon and discussing strategy. Klayman even asks at one point, “What did I just watch?” I’m not sure he knows, but it’s all very foreboding. Domestic and international conservatives clamoring for closed borders as if it were a purely economic issue, when we all know what they are talking about.

While Bannon sees himself as a moral-intellectual beleaguered by plural and global modernity, the camera also sees him struggling with his persona. He used to be behind the scenes, pulling strings and providing talking points. Now he has to brand himself and face all the attention and scrutiny. He hates it. The resulting identity crisis is compelling. He agreed to two feature documentaries, including this one, to propel his persona, but then hides.

When the Errol Morris film American Dharma premieres at the Venice Film Festival, he attends but stays inside his hotel taking meetings; Klayman captures it all. He seems extremely self-conscious and resistant to a role he has designed for himself. He both hates and loves crowds and media. He loves winning but also admits that there are “no friends” at this level of politics. It all just seems contradictory and empty and sad.

The Brink takes a dramatic turn when Bannon grants an interview with journalist Paul Lewis of The Guardian. He’s well and truly confronted; Lewis asks him about circulating white supremacist and anti-semitic conspiracy theories. It’s a gratifying climax, followed by the historic 2018 election, which struck a major blow to Bannon’s political project. Accordingly, he melts down and yells at his colleagues on the phone as they track numbers. Also, it turns out it’s illegal for him to contribute to international campaigns in nine of the 13 countries he sought for his movement, go figure!

Overall, The Brink is a dynamic portrait of large and small scale self-destruction. Mapping one man’s ambivalence onto a national and global crisis is quite an achievement. How this man defines himself reflects how hard it is for nations to adjust in an era of global flow. Xenophobia is a specter that haunts many houses.

Katherine has a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and an enduring opinionated love for documentary. More of her reviews can be found on her blog: doctake.com