He may be the most polarizing figure in politics that no one votes for or against. As the executive chairman of Breitbart Media, and later the CEO for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Steve Bannon was the behind-the-scenes orchestrator for his chosen candidate's populist agenda, promoting divisive red-meat issues like immigration and demonizing the Democrats and centrist Republicans for the GOP base. His uncompromising win-at-any-cost attitude succeeded in burning the D.C. establishment by landing a political newbie in the White House.
But he also burned bridges – the president was miffed when Time Magazine credited Bannon as "The Great Manipulator," and Michael Wolff made prodigious use of his access to Bannon's criticisms of key administration figures in his book "Fire and Fury." Bannon would depart the White House in January 2018, seeking new worlds to conquer.
For the engrossing new fly-on-the-wall documentary "The Brink" (which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and opens in select cities Friday), filmmaker Alison Klayman obtained remarkable access to Bannon and his inner circle, trailing the political maestro for more than a year as he embarked on a new international initiative to bring the same fire and fury to populist political organizations in Europe, with mixed results.
Bannon is also seen trying to repeat the Republicans' 2016 wins in the 2018 midterms (which he called President Trump's first re-election bid), when a brewing "blue wave" threatened to recapture control of the House for the Democrats. We see him auditioning populist candidates to run as standard-bearers of Trump in GOP primaries, bestowing his blessing upon those deemed the most media-savvy. We also see Bannon as a debater pleased with his standing as a GOP star demonstrably taking credit for the 45th president's victory, and as a dispenser of realpolitik to access journalists hovering within view or within easy reach via speed dial.
In "The Brink" he is remarkably unfiltered when discussing his motives and strategies, as is nearly everyone. (Only Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and Trump advisor, comments that he has to watch what he says before Klayman's microphones.) Despite his characterization among late-night comedians as a racist firebreather who wears too many shirts, Bannon comes across as a jovial and inviting raconteur, eager to pull his audience into an exclusive club. He is adept (and maybe a little greedy) in taking the spotlight at Republican fundraisers, where he skewers Democrats and the "liberal elites" while portraying conservative elites (businesspeople, philanthropists) and their down-market followers (working and middle classes) as the real owners of American values.
He invokes Lincoln and speaks in lofty tomes of "the battle," or of being a fighter on the ropes, relishing the honor of being a political pugilist who makes headlines, and for whom there is no bad PR. But from what we hear during Klayman's whirlwind tour, Bannon's worldview beyond the transactional tactics of winning and maintaining power at all costs is fairly blurry, given how possessed he is of the rules of engagement in inter- and intra-party fighting as compared to the implementation and long-term ramifications of social policy. He doesn't seem to care for the intricacies of fiscal policy, while he can find himself in the weeds with a web designer over the layout of an internet site (being so cognizant of its value as a media and marketing tool), or massaging a message that might shift the percentages of a focus group's feedback.
Klayman's previous documentaries include "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," about the Chinese artist-activist, and "Take Your Pills," about the rising dependency upon cognitive-enhancing drugs like Adderall. With "The Brink," she (not entirely dispassionately) observes Bannon operating the levers of media manipulation and sometimes (but not often) being challenged over his views and tactics.
She tails Bannon as he criss-crosses Europe to promote an amalgam of far-right populist politicians and parties, dubbed The Movement. He is heard proselytizing for a common agenda, casting refugees and immigrants as threats to the social order (which critics describe as white nationalist and neo-fascistic). To Bannon, he is "doing the Lord's work" by pushing nationalism as the antithesis of globalism, and selling "euro-skepticism" to attack the EU "elites," but at times you almost wonder if he believes in it beyond the talking points, as long as the foot soldiers are riled up to take over electoral territory. He has no qualms about smashing the bonds forged by countries following World War II and the end of the Cold War, if it means forming new bonds that uphold a more narrow, exclusionary world view.
His success in the United States at elevating a man espousing anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric attracted some far-right figures who see Bannon as a visionary. But while The Movement gained adherents (like Britain's Nigel Farage and Italy's Matteo Salvini), Bannon also received pushback from players who did not want American influence in European politics, and he discovered that campaign finance laws in Europe are wildly inconsistent with regards to money from foreign sources, tying his hands in some cases. (And just who is funding The Movement? When queried, the on-camera subjects suddenly become mousey quiet. Huh.)
When The Guardian reporter Paul Lewis takes Bannon to task over allying his operations with neo-fascists in Italy with the goal of normalizing them, their discussion devolves over the definition of neo-fascism. Words, of course, have power, and Bannon knows better than most how the choice and inflection of words can move the dial from blue to red and back again.
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The film makes clear that Bannon relishes the fight. After a contentious appearance on a British morning chat show in which interviewer Susanna Reid rakes him over the coals on the Muslim ban and President Trump's remarks following the violence in Charlottesville, he can't stop talking about how tough she was, admiring her tenacity. Even though he may not have come off looking well, he realizes it was riveting television. The disruptor had done his duty.
For her part, Klayman keeps her editorial distance – she rarely interjects questions or comments upon the proceedings that her camera documents – though she does parry with Bannon on a few occasions when his comments seem to cross the boundary of constitutional ideals. And while he is at first resistant to Klayman labeling his movie about the president's 2016 campaign ("Trump@War") as "propaganda," recognizing it as a pejorative, he later eagerly uses the term himself when describing the film and its purpose, even raising the name of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl when discussing its merits. And it was obviously effective for its intended audience; one woman who attends a GOP fundraiser glowingly praises it, admiring how "un-propaganda" it is.
Bannon therefore turns the war of social principles into a war of propaganda, in which one woman's nihilistic screed is another's affirmation of moral attitudes. And on that emotional (rather than intellectual) battleground, the Disruptor in Chief finds a fertile field for dividing and conquering.
There has been a large number of recent documentaries and series (including "The Final Year," "The Circus," "Get Me Roger Stone" and "The Fourth Estate") that show the backroom dealings, media manipulation and gamesmanship in contemporary politics. As informative as these films may be, watching how the partisan sausages get made has perhaps never been so distressingly taxing. Yet, "The Brink" is a very effective example of the genre in part because the character of Steve Bannon appears as both protagonist and antagonist. He's a field marshal offensively directing flanks of troops to conquer territory, and also welcoming incoming fire if it means using up his opponents' ammunition.
And Klayman can claim a great measure of success; she spent more than a year with Steve Bannon, and survived! And out of her marathon came a document that helps explain how the bloody cudgel of political ideas is often wielded nowadays, sometimes effectively and successfully, but always leaving decorum and comity tied up and gagged. The film also offers a lesson in how, come Election Night 2018, such strong-arm tactics, even in the hands of a master, could fail spectacularly.
"The Brink," distributed by Magnolia Pictures, opens in select theatres in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., on March 29, and expands to Chicago, San Francisco and other cities beginning in April. The film is not rated. 92 mins.
To watch a trailer for "The Brink" click on the video player below.