I’m sorry to report that The Brink, in which director Alison Klayman accompanies Steve Bannon around the country and the world as he promotes his far-right, anti-globalism agenda, is the year’s most urgent documentary — the one you need to see this week, not this year.
I frankly wish you didn’t have to rush. I’d prefer Bannon was a fringe hatemonger, preaching to his particular choir and being loudly (or even tacitly) shunned by mainstream politicians. But marginal he’s not. In the film, he meets with some of the world’s most powerful government leaders and brainstorms with Blackwater (now Academi) CEO Erik Prince and former Goldman Sachs CEO John Thornton, as well as eager and presentable Republican candidates. (Some not-so-presentable candidates, too, like Hizzoner Roy Moore.) Not everyone loves Bannon, to say the least, but among those who do are people with hundreds of millions of dollars to throw his way. And Bannon believes that victory is within reach. He studies nationalist — or “populist” — movements and knows the first thing he needs is “a solid enough minority that’s immoveable.” He has that — he puts the percentage in the mid-to-high 30s. He just needs to convince an increasingly susceptible 15 to 20 percent of the rest. He’s excellent at motivating people. He says to his audiences, “They want to take your voice away,” and everyone has his or her “they.”
You might wonder from the start why Bannon would let a plainly anti-fascist director (Klayman made the superb doc, Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry) be a fly on his wall — or in his ointment. Good question. The unabashed slobbola often alludes to her camera and says things like, “I’m gonna be so crushed in this film,” when he stays in not-so-populist five-star hotels. But he cites Trump, whose campaign he took over, as teaching him there’s no bad PR. He knows if Klayman doesn’t turn him into a clown — if she takes him on his own terms — than he’ll affirm his celebrity and even reach a few people. He was right to trust her. She doesn’t take too many cheap shots at him. (The only one I can think of is a montage of his schtick when posing with a man and a woman, the woman in the middle — “A rose between two thorns.” Gag.) It turns out Klayman doesn’t have to editorialize to make the point that he’s one of the most dangerous people alive.
Bannon’s strategy with interviewers is simple: Deny, deny, deny. In his talks before adoring audiences, he cites dishonest liberals who call him a xenophobe or a racist. Imagine, him a xenophobe! He (and now Trump) have sought to make the word “nationalism” respectable.
“Economic nationalism is what binds us together,” he says, to audiences both foreign and domestic — which would seem counterintuitive if he were merely an American nationalist. In Hungary, he’s a Hungarian nationalist, warning that immigrants destabilize Western societies. Ditto in the U.K. with Nigel Farage and France with Marine Le Pen and their equivalents in Germany and Belgium. He’s too smart to call Trump’s proposed Muslim ban constitutional. He calls it instead “a necessary shock to the system.” Define “necessary,” “shock,” and “system” how you will. Paul Lewis of the Guardian charges him with “dog-whistle anti-Semitism,” especially in his frequent invocations of George Soros. Deny, deny, deny — it’s just that Soros, he says, is behind so many destabilizing movements. He has no problems with other billionaires, though, among them the Mercers, who withdrew their support on the publication of Michael Wolff’s incendiary Trump portrait, Fire and Fury, or Chinese exile Guo Wengui, a.k.a. Miles Kwok, a proud Mar-a-Lago member with whom Bannon is filmed meeting in Washington, D.C. Kwok has so far been good for a hundred million. Others of Kwok’s ilk decline to be named and Bannon declines to name them. Thanks to the Citizens United verdict, he doesn’t have to.
Although there are several scenes in which Bannon verbally abuses his underlings, The Brink is not a profile documentary, like Errol Morris’s recent American Dharma. It’s action-oriented. It’s in the present tense, which means no talking heads decrying Bannon’s agenda, only journalists putting him on the spot. Bannon doesn’t do well when faced with stark accusations, not just by journalists but in a Toronto forum by one-time conservative darling David Frum. His main retort is that he’s not what they say he is.
I have to confess that I see Bannon’s charm. “Sloppy Steve” (Trump’s withering label) lumbers around hotel rooms sucking down can after can of Red Bull and seems to be truly in his element, which not everyone can say. Gawd, I wish I could be in my element the way Steve Bannon is. He wakes up every day certain of his mission. It’s possible that he’s not being cynical when he tells a Republican crowd that Trump’s election was “divine providence.”
That said, there’s a lot of outright dishonesty on display in The Brink. A Republican propaganda creature named Sam Nunberg reminds Bannon (like he needs reminding) that mass deportation and the wall are Trump’s brand, and “easy for people to understand.” Bannon’s allies’ reaction to news of bombs mailed to Democratic leaders (among them Soros and Barack Obama) are more telling. They say they doubt it’s a Trumper behind the assassination attempts because violence on the political right is so unusual. The violence comes from the left — remember the Black Panthers? They don’t mention that the Panthers haven’t been a thing for half a century but they are, after all, black. As for the now convicted, militantly Trumpist bomb maker, Cesar Sayoc? As Emily Litella would say, “Never mind.”
The Brink builds to the 2018 turnover of the U.S. House of Representatives, which Bannon to his credit (he’s no dummy) predicts well in advance. He’s depressed — he knows the party in power in the House controls appropriations — but hardly deterred. If Democrats “go with race and politics as a centerpiece [of their campaigns], we’ll win,” he insists. He knows how tempting it is to so many Americans — not all of them “deplorables” — to blame their economic woes on the notion that the U.S. has become “a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.” Bannon might be technically on the outs with Trump but he’s sanguine about doing Trump’s — i.e., the Lord’s — work. He’s out there now, meeting with far-right world leaders, spending some but not all of the money he has because he’ll need it in 2020. The title of The Brink — never uttered in the film — is the true message. Respect this man. Holy shit, respect him. Sloppy Steve has a tidy vision of the world to come.