By Liam Lacey
The Brink, director Alison Klayman’s year-long cinema verité portrait of Steve Bannon, is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Donald Trump’s political strategist, who helped connect the candidate to white nationalists before falling out of favour. In the film, Bannon compares himself to Abraham Lincoln, facing an America on the brink of ruin, though he’s not all that grandiose.
The film begins with Bannon enthusiastically recalling his 2016 documentary, Torchbearer, which featured Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson on God and history. “My shit in Auschwitz rocked!’ is the crudest thing he says in the film, though enthusiasm for the German engineering of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp runs a close second.
Director Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) gets the Nazi connections out of the way at the start, in her quest to follow Bannon from the fall of 2017, after he lost his job at the White House, through the 2018 midterm elections when the Democrats won back the congress.
Mostly, Kayman lets Bannon roam free, sometimes shown hanging in hotels with his factotum and nephew, Sean. Typically, we see him in his professional capacity, promoting Republican candidates like alleged sex offender Roy Moore, giving speeches and holding meetings with potential clients, as he tries to drum up a post-White House career as a political adviser.
Bannon comes across as personable, self-deprecating about his appearance, chugging cans of Red Bull and trying to launch the international populist movement he calls The Movement.
He dines and talks shop with anti-immigrant politicians like England’s Nigel Farage, Belgium’s Filip Dewinter and Sweden’s Kent Ekeroth. And despite his oft-mentioned hatred of “elites,” he finds time for billionaires like Blackwater’s Erik Prince and Chinese expatriate Miles Kwok.
As Bannon jets around the world, the passage of the year is marked by headlines, including the Michael Wolff’s tell-all White House book; the anonymously written “we are the resistance” New York Times op-ed. All this culminates in the 2018 mid-terms, when Bannon loses his cool, cursing out underlings and thumping his head against a kitchen cabinet in frustration as the poll results roll in. Democrats, led by a record number of women, take over the House. Bannon ends up like a decapitated rattlesnake, defeated but still potentially lethal.
A question the film raises, though doesn’t answer, is: what is the antidote to this poison? Bannon and his right-wing cohorts, including Roger Stone and Trump himself, share a blackly comic love of disruption, leaving their adversaries reeling in outrage. Isn’t there something better?
We see a couple of good journalists, Susanna Reid of the BBC and Paul Lewis of The Guardian, challenge Bannon on his incitements to racism. And in Toronto, during a debate about populism with David Frum, we hear the audience mockingly laugh at Bannon when he praises Trump for his NAFTA deal and Electoral College win.
Following the debate, Bannon expresses surprise that “decent people” seem to hate Trump so much. It’s almost as though he’s on the brink of an insight.
The Brink. Directed by Alison Klayman. With Steve Bannon. Opens April 12 at Toronto’s Canada Square, May 3 in Montreal, and throughout the spring in other cities.