Director: Alison Klayman
Cast: Stephen Bannon, Nigel Farage, Raheem Kassam, Louis Aliot, Sean Bannon, Patrick Caddell
Watch The Brink online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store
Directed by Alison Klayman – who made Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry, so her liberal credentials are not in question – The Brink is a portrait of political strategist Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign advisor. Disarming, insightful and chilling, it’s an essential watch, whatever your political orientation.
Picking up shortly after Bannon was booted out of the Trump White House, the film adopts a strictly fly-on-the-wall approach and follows Bannon as he travels to Europe for a series of innocent little dinners with far-right party leaders – so he can later say, “Oh, that wasn’t a meeting, they just came to the dinner that time” – attempts to set up a political movement (called The Movement), chases large donations from wealthy investors (including Chinese exile Guo Wengui, a.k.a. Miles Kwok), does a series of press interviews, meets with prospective Republican candidates in the upcoming 2018 mid-term election, and touts – not entirely successfully – his hour-long propaganda video.
The film is immediately disarming because Bannon himself comes across surprisingly well on camera, regardless of how you feel about his beliefs. He’s often self-deprecating, frequently commenting on how he’s going to be ruined when the film comes out, even though the worst behaviour Klayman captures extends to either bawling out underlings or his slightly creepy habit of placing a woman between him and another man and commenting “a rose between two thorns”, whenever someone wants a photo (he does it a lot and there’s a montage that’s mostly played for laughs).
The film is insightful because Klayman allows us to see Bannon’s strategies up close, from telling people what they want to hear to normalising phrases such as “economic nationalism” and promoting his “unified, populist agenda”. It’s worth noting, too, that success begets success – his work on the Trump campaign brings every European right-winger to his door, eager for a piece of the same pie. On that note, warning: this film contains several minutes of Nigel Farage.
Ultimately, it’s a chilling watch, because you see clearly what Bannon is up to and it’s deeply disturbing. Most notably, he takes pains to either hide or strongly deny accusations of racism or anti-Semitism and whenever anyone confronts him with anything he just calmly smiles, nods and disagrees, knowing that the damage is already done. A key scene in this regard occurs when the Guardian’s Paul Lewis charges him with “dog-whistle anti-Semitism” in his knowing use of the term “globalism” and Bannon keeps disingenuously denying it with a big smile on his face. It’s a strategy that works all too well – it’s impossible to watch this scene without thinking of Boris Johnson in particular.
In fairness, there are setbacks, such as the defeat of disreputable Republican candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, or the results of the mid-terms when the Democrats won back the House. Bannon’s at his lowest in those moments, but even then you can see him calmly calculating the next step.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the documentary is the question of why Bannon agreed to be filmed so closely in the first place. It’s possible that he was emboldened by his experience with documentarian Errol Morris, in which Bannon apparently refused to rise to Morris’ bait and emerged relatively unscathed. However, it’s more likely that it has something to do with the lesson he says he learned directly from Trump, that “there is no bad publicity”. Given how well Bannon comes across here, even as he’s saying, doing and planning terrible things, it’s hard to disagree.