In the open moments of The Brink we see Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart shit stirrer, former Trump campaign manager and permanent boogeyman of the left reminiscing about a visit to an old Nazi death camp. It’s functional design illustrated to him how mundane human beings were the force behind such awful events. Documentarian Alison Klayman has something similar on her mind. The Brink adopts a verité, observational style in order to get a handle on Bannon who many see as the man behind Donald Trump.
Bannon’s image might be that of an arch manipulator and propagandist. At one point he compares himself (favourably) with Leni Riefenstahl. However the conflict between shadowy persona and affable personality drives much of the film. We see him choke down a green smoothie to try to get people online to stop making fun of his looks. We’re also introduced to him at a sympathy generating low ebb. He’s been let go from his White House position and is attempting to stay relevant to the Republican party and, later, the European far right. It’s his comeback tour of sorts. Klayman’s approach allows for small details to shine through. Some will be surprised at the revelation that Bannon isn’t a constantly Sieg Heil-ing monster misquoting Sun Tzu. Rather, he’s a red bull downing man surrounded by the type of people who exclaim ‘You look like frickin’ David Bowie’ when they see an old picture of him wearing a shirt.
One thing that The Brink doesn’t particularly analyse is whether or not Bannon is as canny as he’d have the world believe. He undoubtedly has a knack for smuggling far right talking points into public discourse and 2016 seemed like the moment when this strategy bore fruit. It was a seismic shift for Western politics. That said the story of 2016 is the Democrats losing, not Trump winning. He got less votes than Romney. Clinton blew it. The thought that Bannon might be an evil wizard is an oddly comforting one to many liberals that don’t want to reckon with the idea that they lost a chess match to a man who was playing Hungry Hungry Hippos. Even though the film is interested in human details rather than big picture stats there is a sense that maybe this guy isn’t all he thinks he is. He’s shown on the road, playing the hits for the crowds that laugh, night after night as he calls them ‘deplorables’. ‘Hey, remember when Hillary Clinton said that one time in 2016? That was fun, wasn’t it guys? Guys?’
At times the narrative shifts and we get a hint that maybe he is the real deal. In the second act Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan and Goldman Sachs bankers all appear alongside the coy neofascists of the new European far right. It’s a real rogues gallery of complete cunts. We then get an ominous montage of headlines as party after party in Europe agree to cooperate with Bannon’s new anti-globalist project. They flock to his banner and his comeback looks secure.
Ultimately, though, this is a story of failure. It’s the story of a man losing an Alabama senate seat to the Democrats because he helped convince his party to run someone accused of being a paedophile. The Republicans that Bannon is then involved with lose in the midterm elections and the Dems take the house. There’s a telling choice in that Klayman selects an assortment of audio clips, mostly from young, female left wingers to illustrate this particular defeat for Bannon. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar can be made out among many others.
Bannon is a creature of the media. He thrives off attention and he knows it. One can debate whether a ‘humanising’ portrait of him is helpful (or, rather, who it’s helpful to). It might not be the most analytical film but the closing scenes of The Brink are enough to suggest that maybe he isn’t an Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe he’s Alan Partridge.