The Brink (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Richard Porton
Produced by Marie Therese Guirgis and Alison Klayman; directed and photographed by Alison Klayman; edited by Brian Goetz and Marina Katz; music by Ilan Isakov and Dan Teicher; featuring Stephen K. Bannon. Color, 91 min. A Magnolia Pictures release.
Is Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s former “chief strategist” and the man who, during his tenure as executive chairman of Breitbart News, foisted Milo Yiannopoulos on the American public, an earnest racist ideologue, or a mere slick opportunist cashing in on his proximity to power? The question is probably unanswerable, but, as Marie Therese Guirgis observes, “It doesn’t matter.” The consequences of his words and actions are what are important, not his personal motivations.
Guirgis is the producer of The Brink, a new documentary on Bannon that won acclaim earlier this year at Sundance. When I sat down to discuss the film with her and The Brink’s director Alison Klayman at Magnolia Pictures’s offices in mid-March, I mentioned that Bannon had recently been in the news after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confessed that the former White House insider urged him to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Guirgis immediately replied that “he’s also in the news because of the Christchurch mosque massacre”—an event that had occurred the day before our interview.
Quite predictably, as the news cycle continued, Bannon assailed the “mainstream media” for linking Trump to the accused shooter Brenton Tarrant’s “ethnonationalism.” Yet, as a postmortem analysis of the massacre on the Foreign Policy Website argues, Tarrant’s fanatical white nationalism shares many affinities with the writings of the far-right French polemicist Renaud Camus, a man whose half-baked conspiracy theories concerning “the great replacement” inspired white supremacists at Charlottesville and who cites Jean Raspail, the author of the repellently racist novel The Camp of the Saints— known to be a favorite of Bannon’s—as a “prophet.”
Bannon’s slithery verbal pirouettes are among the most striking components of The Brink, a skeptical portrait that benefits from Klayman’s unparalleled access to her subject. His cooperation was no doubt facilitated by the fact that Bannon was once Guirgis’s boss during her tenure at Wellspring Media, a now-defunct art-house distributor that included the works of prestigious directors such as Tsai Ming-liang and Bruno Dumont in its catalogue and even distributed films that one would have assumed were anathema to the conservative Bannon, most notably LGBTQ landmarks like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003) and even a pro–John Kerry documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004). When I recapitulated the question Eric Kohn posed in IndieWire after Trump’s election—has Bannon become more conservative in the intervening years or was he merely functioning as a smart businessman?—Guirgis replied that both propositions were probably true. She once viewed him as a more “moderate Republican” and a businessman smart enough not to object to Wellspring’s acquisitions policy.
Both Guirgis and Klayman confirm that Bannon’s vanity, and the assurance he would be enshrined in a tony art-house documentary, probably convinced him to participate in the project. Embedded within the Bannon entourage for a year, Klayman neither disguised her disdain for her subject nor aspired to ensnare him in a trap that might reveal the rabid racist beneath the exterior of a superficially amiable huckster who announces to countless audiences that he merely wants to extend the benefits of “economic nationalism” to Americans regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. A mousetrap strategy isn’t needed; the veniality beneath the genial exterior emerges organically.
Bannon, however, is shown as wedded to his disingenuousness; he’s mastered the shtick of a right-winger who wastes no time to insist that he’s devoted to the common man and enraged by the “Party of Davos” and mainstream country club Republicans. No voice-over commentary is needed to point out the ludicrousness of his Man of the People pose, given that Bannon—when he’s not schmoozing with former Goldman Sachs chairman John Thornton—spends much of the film traveling to various destinations on private jets and hanging out in five-star hotels.
The merits of what Klayman terms her cinéma-vérité approach (although, in the United States, the term “direct cinema” is usually preferred in order to distinguish American “fly on the wall’ documentaries from Jean Rouch and his disciples’ more interventionist modus operandi) are on display in The Brink’s precredits “cold open.” The garrulous Bannon, seemingly without any prompting, announces that “my shit rocked at Auschwitz!” and then launches into an odd anecdote recounting a shoot at the Polish death camp during the filming of what he terms his “craziest film”—Torchbearer (2016). A vehicle for Phil Robertson, the notoriously homophobic, anti-Muslim reality star, Torchbearer is a little-seen oddity. Unable to even remember the precise name of his film without assistance from an aide, Bannon, while acknowledging the “moral horror” of the Holocaust, seems more impressed by the “precision German engineering” behind Auschwitz-Birkenau and speculates on the planning sessions that made the death camp possible.
Klayman, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, accurately refers to this scene as “unsettling.” It also reinforces how Bannon’s worldview is revealed incrementally, without any obvious “gotcha” moments. Without uttering any sentiments that are even marginally anti-Semitic, Bannon, despite paying deference to, as Klayman remarks, the “banality of evil,” appears almost gleeful in his barely submerged admiration for German technological acumen. In essence, it’s an opportunity for viewers to connect the dots. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes the Holocaust as a meticulous effort to eradicate the victims’ “personhood.” It’s difficult not to align this totalitarian mindset with Bannon and Trump’s desire to obliterate the personhood of immigrants and Muslims.
According to Klayman, she exercised a considerable amount of restraint while profiling a man known for his chumminess with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. When I mentioned Bannon’s fondness for The Camp of the Saints, a book that goes unmentioned in both her film and Errol Morris’s American Dharma, she replied, “Yes, I have footage of him signing a copy of that novel—a guy brought it to the rally he did in Buffalo in October 2018, and when Bannon took a photo with him in the post-rally photo line, the guy asked him to sign the book for him. Bannon laughed and said something like, ‘You’re gonna get me in trouble!’ and signed the book.”
Fortunately, unlike Morris’s film (and even, to a certain extent Joshua Green’s relatively critical book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency), which critics such as Richard Brody characterized as a documentary that let Bannon “off the hook,” Klayman doesn’t make the mistake of treating Bannon as a serious intellectual. Basically a lengthy interview, American Dharma makes a perfunctory effort to challenge Bannon’s platitudes by flashing newspaper headlines on the screen that contradict his hubristic stance. Yet, for the most part, Morris accepts Bannon’s image of himself as a reactionary savant. Bannon’s reverence for Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) is overemphasized in such a ludicrous fashion that Morris even replicates the Quonset hut from King’s film as a ploy to explore Bannon’s “philosophy.” It’s impossible, however, to find hidden depths in a hollow man, and there’s a grim desperation to Morris’s claim that observers can locate a struggle between a “good Bannon” who has a Capraesque fondness for the common man—a sort of Bernie Sanders with conservative mores—and the “bad Bannon” who attaches himself to anti-Semitic and racist demagogues.
Klayman recognizes that Bannon is, at heart, a failed entertainer, not an intellectual. The film documents Bannon’s recourse to shtick, which might seem corny to most of us, but pleases his conservative audiences. When heckled at an event, he cracks that the woman harassing him must be one of his former wives. When posing with couples, he continually positions the woman in the center of the photograph and proclaims that she’s a “rose between two thorns.” After his “debate” (which seems more like a lugubrious conversation) in Toronto with the never-Trump conservative David Frum, his first query to his crony John Thornton involves how he came across to the audience. He appears to view himself as much as a forlorn stand-up comedian as a political operative.
Klayman and Guirgis are cautious not to attack American Dharma, and Guirgis even remarked that some of the negative reviews of Morris’s film were “unfair.” Guirgis maintains that Morris could have “yelled and screamed” in an inquisitorial fashion and Bannon would probably have remained unscathed. Both filmmaker and producer emphasize that, given Bannon’s cagey stance, it would have been virtually impossible for Morris to have extracted anything revelatory from his subject over the course of a staged interview lasting only a few days.
Klayman’s stealthier approach occasionally unmasks Bannon as he casually dissembles. The most dramatic instance of this inadvertent self-sabotage occurs in a scene where The Guardian’s Paul Lewis interrogates Bannon about some of the shadier individuals linked to “The Movement,” an effort to unite European right-wing populists under one umbrella and act as a counterweight to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. When Lewis mentions the overtures made by The Movement to characters such as Felip Dewinter, a Belgian politician notorious for his desire to pay homage to Flemish SS members who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, Bannon can only lamely answer that “they were invited to a dinner” but will not be full-fledged allies in a venture that now seems doomed to failure. While Bannon’s attacks on the “Jeff Bezos Washington Post” demonstrate that, like his former boss, he probably regards the press as the enemy of the people, he also appears to relish colloquies with left-leaning journalists like Lewis as part of a perverse cat-and-mouse game. After Lewis accuses The Movement of “dog whistling” to anti-Semites by condemning Soros and his disciples as “globalists,” Bannon strenuously objects and appears pained. There’s an odd disingenuousness in his dealings with journalists; he intensifies his aggression when it’s strategically useful and impersonates a wounded victim when he feels entrapped.
Bannon makes intermittent attempts to go against the grain of Trumpian arrogance and appear self-deprecating; when downing a Kombucha, he speculates that the beverage’s stock might go down as a result. Feigned geniality, alas, goes only so far and Bannon’s distinctive form of bullying surfaces in his dealings with Raheem Kassam, the British former editor-in-chief of Breitbart London. In most respects, Kassam is as unappealing a personage as Bannon. As Klayman points out, “Raheem used to be Nigel Farage’s chief of staff. He was the original point of contact between Bannon and many of the European far-right politicians you see in the film” during the early planning stages for The Movement. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to be a little sympathetic to this thoroughgoing reactionary, a former Muslim who defends the activities of the odious English Defence League, as he’s first celebrated and then demoted by the film’s sneering protagonist. Deeming Kassam lazy and unreliable, Bannon appoints his nephew Sean to monitor the wayward editor’s behavior. When I questioned Klayman about the power dynamics implicit in this scene, she replied, “You can definitely view the way Bannon acts in that scene through the lens of male dominance, and it was an example of how Bannon can sometimes treat his team (beyond just Raheem).”
Mirroring the direct-cinema paradigm, a nonfiction subgenre that specializes in contrasting “onstage” and “backstage” behavior, scenes of this nature often point to the Machiavellian persona that lies behind Bannon’s surface affability. While Klayman mentioned The War Room—an account of the Bill Clinton campaign that gives priority to backstage machinations—as a reference point, a similar tension emerges in D. A. Pennebaker’s portraits of show business figures such as Bob Dylan and Jane Fonda. In both politics and entertainment, the performing self smothers anything resembling transparency or authenticity.
The unpredictable aspect of this sort of filmmaking also means that The Brink, as Klayman interjects, would have had a much different denouement if Roy Moore, Bannon’s favored candidate for the Senate in Alabama, had won, or if the Republicans hadn’t lost the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections. These events puncture Bannon’s façade of invincibility and prove that this supposed strategic genius is, despite his insistence that he was almost singlehandedly responsible for Trump’s victory, more a matter of instinct than calculation.
There’s also the question of whether Bannon subscribes to any core values other than the importance of winning. But, for Klayman, what remains consistent, especially in the light of his right-wing Catholic precepts, is an unwavering Islamophobia as well as a pronounced hostility to gays and transgender individuals. She points to Bannon’s film In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004; a film I find frankly unwatchable) as the most useful document for deciphering his motivations. The film presents Reagan as an intransigent crusader against communism, while the next crusade is identified as the fight against Muslim hegemony. The premiere of this film at the Liberty Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2004 proved a transitional event; in Joshua Green’s account, “[It] was here that Bannon first encountered Andrew Breitbart, the conservative impresario, and was drawn into his orbit.”
The Brink’s concluding moments reflect the uncertainties of our current political impasse. Although Bannon bemoans the Democratic victories in the House, his brand of right-wing populism is still in the ascendant in countries as disparate as Brazil and Poland. In a rare authorial intervention, the musings of Klayman’s antihero are drowned out by an aural montage of voices of women who won Congressional seats in 2018; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s is the most recognizable. The hope is that their egalitarian aspirations will provide an antidote to Bannon’s faux-egalitarian posturing. Klayman realizes, though, that ethnonationalism (despite Bannon’s disavowal of that term) is not dead. We last glimpse “Sloppy Steve,” to invoke Trump’s monicker, as he disembarks from a train in Rome, no doubt on his way to recruit some neofascists to his right-wing version of the Comintern.
Richard Porton, a Cineaste editor, is author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due soon in a revised second edition.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3