Outside of Donald Trump himself, Steve Bannon has been the most divisive figure to gain power in the wake of the 2016 election, but his abrupt popularity has sown as much confusion as contempt. After he was ousted as the White House chief of staff following a barrage of bigotry — from the Muslim ban to Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric about the Charlottesville riots — Bannon’s alt-right proselytizing has been characterized as flaming out or revving its engines, depending on the day.
It’s no surprise that his central role in Trump’s presidency has spawned more than one documentary, and they’ve both come to market just a few months apart: Errol Morris’ “American Dharma” probed Bannon’s mindset in the form of an eerie psychological profile; now comes Alison Klayman’s comparatively straightforward “The Brink,” a fly-on-the-wall showcase of Bannon’s post-Trump crusade over the past year.
Both movies detail Bannon’s infuriating attempts to explain his mission of popularizing a far-right agenda in calm, levelheaded terms, but “The Brink” has a more timely hook. Tracking Bannon’s globe-trotting through the Republicans’ crushing 2018 midterm losses, it finally makes him look like a loser.
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Klayman, whose previous credits include a more endearing look at activism with “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” clearly doesn’t sympathize with Bannon’s views — but her polished cinema verite approach largely cedes the floor to its contemptible subject. The result is a watchable overview with few explosive details, but plenty of reasons to root for his downfall, and some modicum of payoff.
Opening in the wake of Bannon’s departure from the White House, the movie spends much of its first half following the impish figure as he takes his newfound celebrity on the road. Still the hawkish leader of alt-right mouthpiece Breitbart, Bannon goes from town to town as he spouts the same rhetoric about Christian values and working-class frustrations that Trump exploited without an iota of subtlety.
Klayman’s camera captures Bannon as he laughs off his haters with an unapologetic oafishness that defines the national discourse. That’s Bannon in a nutshell: a crass alt-right frat boy masquerading as the disruptive future of the Republican Party. Both “The Brink” and “American Dharma” provide snippets of his attempts to exploit intellectual conceits for a contemptible agenda down to the most minute details (in “Dharma,” he mispronounces “avant garde”; in “The Brink,” he refers to the “zeit-geest”). But while Morris delves into how Bannon got this far, “The Brink” provides a more immediate look at what happened next.
Speeding from one celebratory speech to the next, he proclaims himself “doing the Lord’s work,” while shrugging off Trump’s decision to deem the ideologue “Sloppy Steve” once he began leaking stories to the press. In Bannon’s version of the events, the White House was only the starting point for his latest efforts to change the political makeup of the world. “I hated every second,” he says of his time as senior advisor. Considering how much he chases the cameras to escape Trump’s shadow throughout the movie, this may be the one remark in “The Brink” that rings true.
In “American Dharma,” Morris makes a blatant attempt to confront Bannon about his most troubling stances, but “The Brink” largely adheres to the traditional cinema verite playbook by remaining on the sidelines. However, as the movie illustrates Bannon’s coziness with white supremacists around the world — at one point, he advises the leaders of France’s National Front — Klayman can’t help herself. “What did I just watch?” she asks, from behind the camera. But with only Bannon to answer and downplay his intentions, the documentary rarely manages to call out his moral failings, leaving the audience to gape at the duplicity up close (or, for his diehard fans, nod in agreement).
One exception arrives during a sharp-tongued exchange between Bannon and The Guardian reporter Paul Lewis, who pushes Bannon to acknowledge the blatant anti-Semitic dog whistle of his George Soros references on the topic of immigration. For the first time, Bannon looks meek, and he shrinks even further into his shell as the midterms loom.
Klayman makes a few questionable choices to shift the mood (including creepy music cues as Trump and Breitbart drop Bannon a few weeks apart), but “The Brink” succeeds at providing damning evidence of the pundit’s attempts to cozy up with bastions of hate speech around the world in his attempt to launch the international populist network simply dubbed “The Movement.” And she captures the ultimate punchline to that campaign, when Bannon seethes at one of his underlings over the phone and promotes his young nephew to take charge of the project on a whim.
“The Brink” makes it clear that Bannon has fully immersed himself in the act of taking the Trump presidency to international heights, and allows him to stumble on his own bullshit. The title draws from an Abraham Lincoln quote about America on the brink of destruction. When Bannon attempts to position himself in that historical context, it requires no profound insight to recognize how much his overzealousness has become a deranged joke. “The Brink” doesn’t thumb its nose at Bannon, but it allows for fleeting catharsis as many progressive young candidates deliver their speeches while the midterms draw to a close. Even as “The Brink” lets its villain take charge, it ends with the gratifying possibility that he may no longer control the narrative.
But how long will that perception endure? Any exposure for Bannon inevitably risks expanding and deepening his brand. “Trump taught me a great lesson,” he says early on. “There is no bad media.” Even as “The Brink” breaks some ground in challenging that sentiment, it falls short of explaining away his ability to disguise discrimination and cruelty as political convictions.
In its final moments, Bannon’s comeuppance arrives like a bright light at the end of a gnarly two-year tunnel. It feels good to see him come up short — but with European Union elections coming up in May, and Bannon still crusading around the world, the movie leaves open the question of how long that feeling will linger. “American Dharma” ended with the filmmaker torching the set, as his subject walked off into an ominous future; “The Brink” leaves us wondering where he’ll land next.
“The Brink” premiered in the Documentary Premieres section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases it theatrically on March 29.