“My shit at Auschwitz rocked!” Steve Bannon proudly proclaims early on in Alison Klayman’s documentary The Brink. He’s talking about a scene shot at the Nazi death camp in his movie Torchbearer, a film about the deranged worldview of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. Speaking of the camps, Bannon is curiously uninterested in the evils they represent. He marvels at the precision German engineering of Birkenau, and imagines the meetings at which it was designed. And while he acknowledges that the camps are ghastly, even “haunted,” he almost cracks a smile as he talks about how seemingly ordinary people can detach themselves from “moral horror.” The banality of evil, one suspects, represents for him more of a fascinating data point than a terrifying reality.
Bannon does occasionally address Klayman’s camera, but The Brink isn’t interested in giving the former Trump adviser and purported right-wing mastermind much of a voice. (The rest of the media, we could say, has already done that.) It follows him over a period of about 15 months, starting with his eventful departure from the White House in 2017 and ending with the U.S. midterms of 2018. A lot of folks in the journalism world — even some ostensible progressives — are fascinated by Bannon as a source of ideas, which is probably why he gets a lot of interviews and allegedly contentious but ultimately somewhat flattering profiles. But Klayman, who was granted remarkable access to Bannon during this period, achieves something far more valuable and chilling: She shows us not so much what Bannon thinks as what Bannon does.
So, we see him wining and dining European nationalist leaders as he launches “The Movement,” a kind of centralized source for far-right ideas and strategy. We see him courting Republican fundraisers. We see him giving speeches around the country, as he attempts to carve out a more visible political role for himself. Bannon has figured out how to capitalize on hate, fear, and rage, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any real ideology lurking in his words. Despite his reputation as some kind of deep thinker, and despite the history hardcovers he always lugs around, the man doesn’t actually seem to have many ideas. What he does have are symbolic expressions — feelings posing as ideas. At one point, he and fellow Trump confidante Sam Nunberg discuss the border wall, and they basically concede that it’s not a serious policy proposal but just a simplistic concept that resonates with Republican voters. Bannon is fond of opening his speeches by saying that there is room for everyone in the Trump movement, no matter their race, gender, or religion — a claim destroyed by the fact that he was the architect of the Muslim ban.
We also see Bannon manipulate the mainstream media, who he claims will be his biggest allies. He’s right. And Klayman’s film is as much about how Bannon’s message is broadcast as it is about the man himself. When he launches the Movement, journalists from almost all the major publications line up to interview him — from Politico to CNN to The Daily Telegraph to the New York Times. Michael Wolff hovers in the background, as does Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek, who wrote a book about Bannon, which the latter seems quite pleased with. “What would Leni Riefenstahl do?,” Bannon asks at one point, as he screens a trailer for his film Trump @War, which he admits is pure propaganda. He then cheerfully sends the trailer to various major outlets and reporters, including the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, hoping they’ll link to it.
Meanwhile, Bannon backslaps and glad-hands and self-deprecates — he’s chummy and polite and supposedly willing to engage in debate, which is why people let him mouth off so regularly. (He also loves to use the word “dude” to denote sincerity: “Dude, you can’t possibly think that was a dog whistle,” he remarks to a Guardian reporter after being questioned about whether his targeting of George Soros has anti-Semitic implications.) After the launch of the Movement, Klayman cuts to headlines from newspapers around the world that use all the words Bannon wants them to use: “divide and conquer,” “European think-tank,” “supergroup,” “resistance.” The man understands aggregation and how it works. He understands the insatiability of the content beast — and that if he helps feed it, he can quickly amplify his message. “Trump taught me a great lesson,” he says. “There’s no bad media.”
So what makes The Brink so different from just another platform for this professional troll? Though Klayman sticks to a largely vérité approach of following her subject around and observing his various interactions, she also provides important context. News reports on MAGA bomber Cesar Sayoc — the Trump superfan who sent homemade pipe bombs to Soros and prominent Democrats — and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting undermine Bannon’s claim that he’s not sending bigoted dog whistles. Footage of fascist rallies and Germans attacking migrants demonstrate the consequences of the fancy, chummy dinners Bannon has with right-wing European nationalist leaders. After Bannon smugly insists that he never takes any foreign money, Klayman immediately cuts to him meeting with rogue Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok; a title at the end notes that the businessman is helping finance a new Bannon venture.
Klayman isn’t just interested in undercutting Bannon’s own claims, though she does plenty of that. The film ends with the 2018 midterms, during which the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, and in a particularly damning and stirring bit of editing, the director gives us an audio montage of various Democrats — all of them women — offering up specific policy proposals, the very things that her subject never really delivers. Bannon may bloviate and back-slap all he wants, but The Brink’s message is clear: His shit is weak.
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