Is The Brink at all enlightening? Is it boring? Is it going to piss Steve Bannon’s fanbase off? What is the ultimate goal? His name may elicit cheers from some, and rants from others. We all know Bannon won’t actually care. Publicity, good or bad, benefits him. Therefore, the question, is why might a documentary pretend to be neutral toward someone who does not want neutrality? Controversial public figures know what they’re doing, and that’s what this documentary is really about.
Bannon presents himself as a populist. Formerly the executive chairman of Breitbart News and later White House Chief Strategist of the Trump administration, he was the mind behind the infamous “Muslim Ban” and resigned following the alt-right rally in Charlottesville.
Now that he’s out of the White House, director Alison Klayman took the opportunity to shadow him both at home and on international business trips to schmooze with far-right politicals. These trips make the bulk of the film, wherein he describes his new project, but the film becomes a platform for him to reframe himself as something of an everyman.
He’s “relatable” because he has disdain for the “elite” even though he is one; a Harvard-educated ex-Goldman Sachs vice president. He drinks green smoothies (poorly made by his nephew), and chuckles as he talks about his enjoyment of kombucha. You’d think his fans would understand that he’s the baddie; even Trump has distanced himself from Bannon, with both repeatedly saying that they aren’t friends. For someone so “unexpectedly charismatic,” in the words of former Goldman- Sachs president John Thornton, Bannon doesn’t really seem to have friends. He has employees and fans.
This is where I have a problem. For me, this is where we consider ethics. We should not give platform to people who support the likes of Roy Moore or racist and bigoted bans. While it is important to have documented the person for historical archive and reference, the film gives far too much space for Bannon to espouse his strategy, and does so for long enough that it borders on uncritical amplification. At one point he suggests this issue himself, asking “What would Leni Riefenstahl do?” to Klayman. Bannon has made many films himself. He meant that as a compliment. I’m not going to get into Errol Morris’s appearance in this film.
Bannon games the media by being an-ex media businessman whose wealth allows him access to other more powerful people, so that photo ops suggest relationships greater than what may be real, like an Instagram model, except for people who decide whether or not the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. But he uses intimidating body language to get his way, and honesty to position himself away from deceitful politicians.
He is shown aggressively challenging Guardian reporter Paul Lewis, who wrote several articles in a series called “The New Populism”, only to turn around and be “nice” once the interview was over. Lewis did not take that conversation lightly and his articles on the subject are worth reading. “You reach the audience I’m gonna get to because I’m gonna reach 20% of your guys,” he says. By covering this movie I will inevitably reach at least one person, though hopefully not to Bannon’s favor.
Also, how the filmmaker gained access to Bannon is never addressed in the text of the film. Was the approval to film because of the vérité style? After some time, Klayman begins including footage of her talking to Bannon in protest of his insistence that he isn’t using anti-Semitic language. I wish she had spoken in the film sooner, because this is the kind of film where that intervention is necessary. If nothing was said, it would just be propaganda.