‘The Brink’ Review: Steve Bannon Doc is ‘Scariest Movie of the Summer’
Alison Klayman’s new documentary follows the right-wing media executive and one-time Trump confidante Steve Bannon on his mission to create a populist US and Europe.
Forget Midsommar – the scariest movie of the summer is The Brink, film-maker Alison Klayman’s look at former Trump top advisor and co-founder of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, as he hobnobs with big donors, woos the Trump base on behalf of dubious congressional candidates, and attempts to build his personal Injustice League of far-right European nationalist politicians, including the UK’s very own Nigel Farage.
Bannon’s decision to let a documentarian who is not a sympathiser follow him around could be seen as courageous. But, it soon becomes clear that – like his former boss and Farage – he just can’t resist the spotlight.
“Trump taught me a great lesson: there’s no bad media,” he says. It was this inclination to steal focus that partially led to his falling out of favour with the Glitz King – there can be only one star.
Left unexplored is how the extremely handsome, fit young man captured in a photo from his Harvard days turned into this disheveled figure.
Ironically, asked why he fired Raheem Kassam, the Breitbart UK editor who is Bannon’s factotum in the first part of the film, he replies: “Raheem just wants to go on TV and be a big shot. Nigel has the same problem. All these British guys just want to fuck off.”
Like Trump, Bannon is as much a creature of showbiz as of politics, and – in fact – used to run a documentary production company, where he mentored the film’s producer, Marie Therese Guirgis. He even works in a plug for one of his films, Trump@War, which he freely categorises as propaganda.
Bannon is far too media-savvy not to be aware of the contradictions between the principles he promotes and his lifestyle as depicted in the film. This alumnus of the Harvard Business School rails against “elites”, but is shown flying on private jets and staying in five-star hotels – where he seems a lot more comfortable than he does in the decoratively undistinguished living rooms of ordinary Middle American voters he encounters on the campaign trail. This leads him to observe: “I’m going to get so crushed in this film.”
The question remains: is Bannon’s influence diminishing because voters are increasingly rejecting his nationalist populism or because, his extremist views have now become mainstream?
And, for someone who positions himself as an anti-globalist, he mentions that he used to work at its high temple, Goldman Sachs, all the time.
Moreover, Bannon seems to be perfectly comfortable hobnobbing with the super-elite, people like his former boss Goldman Sachs ex-CEO John Thornton, Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince, and the camera-shy Robert Mercer (who has now distanced himself from his former protegé) – the organ grinders for whom the likes of Bannon and Farage are the monkeys – as well as one of his current bankrollers, a Chinese billionaire and Mar-A-Lago member called Miles Kwok, who is wanted in China for money laundering and fraud.
The film starts out in February 2017, with Bannon at a low ebb, having just been cast out into the wilderness – allegedly for urging Trump to assign blame to “both sides” for the deaths that occurred during the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march, but possibly also for telling journalist Michael Woolf that a meeting between Donald Trump Junior and Russian contacts was “treasonous”.
He tries to get back in the game by hitting the rubber-chicken circuit to campaign for some fringe-y Republican candidates like Roy Moore, whose candidacy for a Senate seat ran into difficulties when nine women accused him of sexual misconduct (some while they were underage) – accusations that proved far more damaging than Moore’s history of racism-tinged remarks.
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With his candidates trounced in the 2018 US mid-terms, Bannon turns his attentions toward Europe, with the goal of spreading the “populist nationalist agenda throughout the world”, seemingly deaf to the irony that he is in fact globalising nationalism.
He proselytizes for “economic nationalism”, the reinstating of trade and immigration barriers, allegedly to help the masses who have not shared in the benefits of globalisation – which, he says, “had no ties to social costs so was all about benefit to the equity” (something he strangely fails to take up with Goldman Sach’s Thornton).
“Raheem just wants to go on TV and be a big shot. Nigel has the same problem. All these British guys just want to fuck off”
At first, some of his ideas seem to contain a grain of truth, but the representatives of Europe’s populist parties gathered around Bannon’s table have no use for his elusive, media-friendly formulations and the mask falls off, with references to Viktor Orbán’s contention that “Jews and globalists are trying to take over the world” and Farage calling MP’s who are fighting Brexit “the enemy within”.
Bannon also quotes Orbán’s goal of “building a Christian culture” and it becomes clear that concern about jobs and economic fairness is code for good ol’ anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling.
Some may find Klayman’s devotion to the Frederick Wiseman school of purely observational fly-on-the wall film-making frustrating. She prefers to record others confronting Bannon directly, for example Guardian journalist Paul Lewis, who challenges Bannon’s bland assertion that “’Globalist’ is not a dog-whistle”. We also get little insight into what drives Bannon, besides ego.
This alumnus of the Harvard Business School rails against “elites”, but is shown flying on private jets and staying in five-star hotels.
The most personal moment is when he downs a green smoothie because he’s trying to lose 35 pounds after being stung by comments that called him a “gross-looking Jabba the Hutt drunk”. Left unexplored is how the extremely handsome, fit young man captured in a photo from his Harvard days turned into this disheveled figure who makes Charles Bukowski look groomed.
During his European tour, Bannon declares his alliance of nationalists is “going to run the table” after the EU Parliamentary elections – another electoral success that failed to materialise. But, if anyone is tempted to get complacent, the question remains: is Bannon’s influence diminishing because voters are increasingly rejecting his nationalist populism or because, via Trump and Farage and Matteo Salvini and Orbán, his extremist views have now become mainstream and so he is a redundant gadfly?
The Brink is in cinemas now.