The Edge of Madness: Steve Bannon and ‘The Brink’

Alison Klayman observes the Dark Prince of Populism

7 mins read

The Brink
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Alison Klayman

Should documentarians make movies about ultra-conservative toxic scumbags like Steve Bannon? The answer, after watching Alison Klayman’s The Brink, is, unfortunately, “Yes.” The Brink is the latest Bannon doc after Oscar winner Errol Morris debuted American Dharma last year and became something of a film festival pariah. (I didn’t see it, but here’s Daniel Glassman’s review.) Klayman, who directed the superb Ai Weiwei doc Never Sorry, gives a troublingly objective portrait of Bannon and all his racist views as he fights the good fight to expand his populist message worldwide. Forget UsThe Brink is the must-see horror movie of the season.

The Brink follows Bannon between his ejection as Donald Trump’s chief strategist and his ousting from right wing media outlet Breitbart, where he enjoyed a long reign of terror as its executive chairman. Klayman captures not a man who has fallen, but rather one who is liberated by his recent turns of fortune. (He openly admits to Klayman that he hated his tenure in the White House.) He acts untouchable as if protected by God, and more than once, Klayman films Bannon saying that he’s simply doing “The Lord’s work.” High on power—Bannon gleefully takes credit for putting Trump into office—he brings Klayman on a world tour as he spreads the good word on right wing populism and works with numerous politicians, particularly in Europe, to take hold of what has now been dubbed the Movement.

One must inevitably question Klayman’s responsibility in giving Bannon so much exposure and airtime. There are moments when The Brink nearly humanizes Bannon, like a scene in which he humorously gags on a swampy green shake and concedes his love for kombucha, thus shattering his image as a hot-blooded all-American male who can’t be swayed by lefty beverages. Similarly, the film shows Bannon meeting with women and African-American Republicans (or one, at least), offering footage that his supporters could inevitably take as proof that he isn’t the vehement racist and misogynist that many people assume him to be. On the other hand, Klayman finds a humorous thread of Bannon’s patronizing behaviour as he tries to woo the women at his rallies. Regurgitating the line like a sleazy used car salesman, Bannon invites his female supporters to stand in the middle of photographs as “a rose between two thorns,” sandwiched between Bannon and whatever white guy happens to be on the other side.

The film’s laudably objective portrait might allow the odd viewer to become enraptured by Bannon’s fiery rhetoric and fall into his allure as he gives voice to the thoughts they secretly hold in their heads. Admittedly, the audience watching The Brink is far likelier to sway to the left, rather than to the right, but Bannon himself admits that the Trump campaign taught him that there’s no such thing as bad media. Even when The Brink captures his politics at its most harmful, Bannon’s worldview is still out there for all to see, and perhaps more accessible and effective than ever if a susceptible viewer were to stream it in the dark and connect with it.

As difficult and unsettling as The Brink is to watch, one must remember that Klayman, like Morris, is not giving Bannon a platform to disseminate his toxic ideology. Showing something is not synonymous with endorsing it. Rather, she’s giving audiences face time with evil in its purest form, taking them into the meeting places of modern day populism and white supremacy, inviting viewers to witness the fate of the world if more people like Bannon ascend to power. Besides all the airtime Klayman affords Bannon, she peppers The Brink with news footage of the many racist acts committed worldwide that are intertwined with the populist movement, in places like Charlottesville, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.

The Brink provides a jarring account of Bannon’s ideological machinery. He speaks with eloquence and clarity, espousing extremist views of the world with unnerving even-handedness. What’s most troubling and effective about the film is that it shows how Bannon and his compatriots simply can’t be swayed by reason. Klayman captures a powerful pocket of society that has chosen to exterminate all rational thought in order to validate and further its worldview. Bannon is furiously busy speaking at rallies across America and in meeting upon meeting, he addresses his cohort as fellow “deplorables,” appropriating Hillary Clinton’s fatal word choice and skewering it to compound the crowd’s sense of victimization. The Brink shows how expertly Bannon emboldens and mobilizes the masses.

It simply doesn’t register with Bannon, or his colleagues, that the politics and rhetoric spewed forth by the Make America Great Again campaign and worldwide populist movements are deeply hateful and hurtful. As Klayman injects infrequently in Bannon’s diatribes, and his responses indicate that civilized debate simply isn’t an option with the populist movement, the doc makes clear that the only solution to combatting the movement is to open as many eyes as possible to this clear and present danger.

If there’s one other silver lining to Klayman’s unfiltered view of Bannon, it’s that the subject frequently remarks that he’s a religious man, which means he’s inevitably going to hell. Don’t let the door hit you on the way down, Steve.

The Brink opens in theatres on April 12.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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