Near the end of Alison Klayman’s illuminating documentary, The Brink, after a lively debate between Steve Bannon and conservative commentator David Frum, former Goldman Sachs president John Thornton tells Bannon backstage, “To people who don’t know you, you’re totally disarming because you’re sort of charming and kind of, you pick up irony and you’re, they’re kind of shocked that you’re such a quote unquote nice guy.” But what about the people who do know him? In the film, which opens today at IFC, Klayman doesn’t humanize the man considered an evil genius as much as demystify the onetime Trump campaign head and Breitbart News founding member, following him from the fall of 2017, as he is ousted from the White House shortly after the Charlottesville incident, through the midterm elections of the following year. She is embedded as part of his otherwise all-male entourage as he travels around the country and the world, building support for his far-right beliefs, pushing his agenda of “economic nationalism” and raising money for his 501 (c) 4, Citizens of the American Republic.
Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Take Your Pills) is given nearly full access; Bannon only occasionally asks her to leave the room as he meets with such far-right populists as French National Rally Party leaders Jérôme Rivière and Louis Aliot, Belgian People’s Party politician Mischaël Modrikamen and Vlaams Belang Party leader Filip Dewinter, Sweden Democrats member Kent Ekeroth, former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, and other anti-refugee extremists. He sits down with Blackwater founder Erik Prince, visits with Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok, and plans courses of action with Republican strategists, pollsters, and congressional candidates. He particularly enjoys engaging with members of the media who might not necessarily agree with him; he speaks with Devil’s Bargain author and Bloomberg journalist Joshua Green, Fire and Fury writer Michael Wolff, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, and reporters from Politico, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel.
One of the best moments of the film occurs when Guardian journalist Paul Lewis challenges Bannon on issues of globalism and anti-Semitism. Bannon refuses to back down without evincing upset or anger; he relishes controversy, defending himself with a sly smile. He travels to small-town America, showing his documentary Trump @ War at local gatherings, speaking directly to the “deplorables,” exhibiting care and understanding, precisely the kind of thing that Hillary Clinton didn’t do, contributing to her loss of the presidency. The question of Bannon’s sincerity and true purpose hovers in every interaction. Bannon describes his Trump film to Klayman as propaganda, but Klayman then shows us a woman who’s just seen the film praising it because it’s not propaganda. Klayman also captures Bannon raving about the German efficiency that went into building concentration camps, comparing himself to Leni Riefenstahl, supporting Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy, and continually posing for pictures with couples, putting the woman in the center and saying, “a rose between two thorns.”
The Brink was made because producer Marie Therese Guirgis (On Her Shoulders, The Loneliest Planet), the younger sister of writer-director Stephen Adly Guirgis, used to work with Bannon at an independent film distribution company, and she became disturbed by his far-right activity. As he gained power, the left-wing Guirgis would email him, calling him out accusingly, but he would always reply in a civil tone. On her fourth request to make a film about him, he finally relented, agreeing to give Guirgis and Klayman complete control over the project. The two progressive women are not shy about where they stand on the issues and about Bannon’s beliefs; Klayman, who did not have a crew for the shoot — she did the cinematography and the sound and served as coeditor and producer — includes news footage that is not particularly favorable to Bannon, and she does not attempt to humanize him so much as depict him as a driven, determined man who is a master manipulator. The title of the film also reveals their thoughts about Bannon, coming from an Abraham Lincoln quote about being “on the brink of destruction.” When Bannon, who prefers wearing at least two shirts all the time, lets his guard down, as he does on several occasions, he turns into a nasty, self-obsessed figure who makes rash, mean-spirited decisions and is not as pleasant as he likes himself to appear. Of course, it’s impossible to know when Bannon is playing Klayman, using the documentary to further his own ideology. But in taming the beast, Klayman also reveals Bannon’s fascinating methods, something that liberals around the world should study and learn from. Klayman will be at IFC for Q&As with investigative journalist Azmat Khan on March 29 at 7:15 and March 30 at 2:45, with Alissa Wilkinson of VOX on March 30 at 5:00, and on April 1 at 7:15.