“The Limits of Observational Documentary”
Scott Krzych (Colorado College)
The Brink follows Stephen K. Bannon—the infamous advisor to President Trump and former chairman of Breitbart.com—as he travels throughout Europe, where he meets and strategizes with a wide assortment of leaders of far-right political movements, before he returns to the US to campaign on behalf of pro-Trump candidates during the 2018 mid-term elections. At the film’s conclusion, despite Bannon’s best efforts, the Republicans encounter substantial electoral losses, leading to the Democratic Party’s recapture of a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. In a documentary that remains relatively non-confrontational with its central subject, the concluding scenes of electoral defeat appear intent to offer a glimmer of hope, or at least an affective reprieve, for The Brink’s viewers, most of whom, I expect, are no fans of Bannon in the first place. In contrast to the haunting and moody tone of American Dharma (2018), in which Errol Morris steps from behind his Interrotron to confront Bannon face-to-face, The Brink takes a more oblique approach. Though Bannon occasionally engages in mildly combative conversation with director Alison Klayman (who operates the camera throughout), The Brink remains unassumingly observational.
This is not to say that Klayman avoids editorial commentary entirely, however. The film’s editing emphasizes certain, seemingly symptomatic, features of Bannon’s personality, drawing our attention to his quirks and idiosyncrasies, as well as to rather mundane examples where Bannon exhibits cases of personal hypocrisy or an inability to admit his own mistakes. Bannon seems uncomfortable when taking photographs with adoring throngs of Republican fans, often offering trite and cliched comments to fill the uncomfortable silences; he mispronounces the name of a Chinese official and refuses to admit his error when corrected; he sheepishly admits on-camera his occasional failure to live up to his populist brand while he awaits a private jet to whisk him away to speaking engagements where he will champion the so-called “forgotten working class;” and, as almost countless shots affirm, he is addicted to Red Bull energy drinks.
Consequently, in The Brink, as A.O. Scott notes, the “horror [of Bannon’s rise to influence] alternates with grim comedy.” The litany of personal foibles, not to mention Bannon’s inability to sway the mid-term election in Trump’s favor at the film’s climax, deconstructs Bannon’s preferred persona as he has crafted it for the mainstream media, particularly his embrace of the moniker “evil genius.” “What’s risky about the film, but essential,” Klayman notes in an interview, “is that you encounter him as a person.” And the success of the film, she further claims, hinges on the audience’s recognition of Bannon as a “huckster,” less villainous mastermind and more used car salesman.
Yet if Klayman hopes to kill with kindness, the tepid approach perhaps demonstrates the limits of the observational method, at least for the subject matter engaged here. That Bannon is subject to delusions of grandeur, or that he seems interested in his own celebrity even more than in progressing his political movement, and so on, are revelations that leave untouched Bannon’s material contributions to the stoking of neo-Fascist xenophobia on Breitbart, not to mention his role in helping to elect to the presidency a former reality-TV star who has put children in cages, escalated American militarism at the risk of further wars across the globe, and undone environmental regulations and international agreements even in the face of climate catastrophe.
The only substantive moment of confrontation in the film occurs when Paul Lewis, a reporter for The Guardian, demands of Bannon that he admit his association with neo-Fascists and likewise acknowledge that his frequent attacks on billionaire philanthropist George Soros and other so-called “globalists” are cases of thinly-veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric. Bannon stutters and stammers when challenged so directly, but perhaps even more telling is the exchange that occurs after the official interview concludes. As Lewis leaves the suite and Klayman’s camera rushes to catch-up with the two men, Lewis refuses to accept Bannon’s conciliatory gestures. “This is a serious offense, [these cases of] dog-whistle politics. And I think you know it, Steve.” Bannon remains undeterred: “No. I think you’re totally wrong. You know you’re wrong.” This brief but significant moment of impasse illustrates the affective trauma of the post-truth era. Each opposing side is fully convinced of the validity of their “facts,” to such an extent that neither side can fathom the discursive world inhabited by the other. The moralizing gesture—You’re wrong and you know it—attempts to reinstate a plane of political and epistemological equivalence even at the moment of its demonstrative rupture. If the other knows they are wrong but won’t admit it, then our collective failure to share in a reasonable and rational debate gains a moral alibi one that covers over the more troubling prospect of a political landscape in which someone like Bannon does, in fact, believe everything he says and could very well bring to fruition the ideals he espouses. The risk entailed by Klayman’s observational method, then, rests with how the film backs away from a more sustained and direct confrontation with the disturbing reality of such an antagonistic deadlock.
To be sure, in the era of Trump, we may welcome such moments of reprieve that The Brink seems intent to provide, the consoling reminder that a political operative such as Bannon is not all-powerful and that his moment of influence may be on the wane. But perhaps even this allowance suggests that a film like Morris’s American Dharma is an almost necessary companion-piece to this one. To be sure, Morris’s flair for the melodramatic may grate on some viewers, but the manner by which Morris embraces head-on the horror of Bannon’s political existence, his dangerous ideas, and his utter refusal to see or admit the error of his ways, demands of his viewers that we linger with this trauma rather than simply or easily dismissing Bannon as just one political charlatan among others.
“The Banality of Steve Bannon”
Anthony Nadler (Ursinus College)
While watching the powerful first scene of Alison Klayman’s The Brink, I couldn’t help but think of Theodor Adorno’s declaration that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Believing only hyperbole could reveal certain truths, Adorno was calling for difficult confrontation with guilt that he thought was being repressed. In the opening of this film, Steve Bannon delivers a noxious antithesis to this famous warning. Bannon is talking about his 2016 film Torchbearer. He’s listing off historic places where parts of it are set, Athens, Rome . . . Auschwitz. With a self-congratulatory nod, Bannon proclaims, “My shit at Auschwitz rocked!”
This opening sequence is the most intriguing and engaging part of the film. Klayman has said that as soon as she captured it, she knew she had her “thesis.” As a good opening usually does, this scene unfolds toward greater complexity. After mentioning Auschwitz, Bannon starts discussing his visit there, particularly to the Birkenau section of the camp that had been built specifically for mass killings. He marvels at its perfect “German industrial design.” Then, he slips into describing a reverie and epiphany he had while gawking at Birkenau’s “precision engineering.” In his mind, Bannon sees the “good people” in Germany toiling diligently at their desks and bringing steaming coffee to meetings as they design and map out every detail of the camp. With a sense of wonder, he tells Klayman that he realized, “humans that are not devils . . . humans that are just humans” and can actually plan this out detached from its “moral horror.”
Watching Bannon talk this through is arresting and eerie. What’s going on? Some kind of sublimated self-assessment? Maybe a rationalization of what he knows at some level is grossly inhumane in his own actions? Or, maybe, he’s trying to bait a viral moment for an outtake from the film?
After this stirring and provocative opening, I have to admit I felt somewhat disappointed by the rest of the film. I appreciate that what follows doesn’t try to give us settled answers about Bannon’s psyche or turn overly didactic. But I wasn’t sure what questions the film is trying to probe or provoke. We can only assume that The Brink is largely made for viewers whose politics run sharply counter to Bannon’s. At its best, watching this film is likely to push viewers to take a longer, more unflinching look at Bannon than they might otherwise. We get a sense of his chummy, self-deprecating humor, and his bumbling mannerisms that some find charming. And we’re made to contemplate how this disarming, if buffoonish, figure can be at the center of an effort to bring together far-right populist projects to fruition across Europe and the US.
So, if you go into this film assuming Bannon’s politics must be matched with a fire-breathing personality or the proudly overt racism of a George Lincoln Rockwell, that will be challenged. Perhaps this is one sense of the banality that we’re meant to take away: Bannon sounds more like an overconfident frat-brother-turned-entrepreneur than an aspiring Father Coughlin. Klayman is careful to offset his charm offensive by reminding us of hate crimes inspired by the far right, challenging Bannon’s use of the term “globalist” as anti-Semitic, and showing moments that reveal Bannon’s willingness to partner with extremist groups, including an Italian party that, according to The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, Bannon himself had called neo-fascist.
Making a film about Steve Bannon — or any of his media-warrior, rightist compatriots — inevitably leads to questioning among left-of-center artists and producers. Does cinematic attention provide someone like Bannon just what they want — the “oxygen of amplification”? The New Yorker’s Richard Brody lambasted The Brink as an unintentional “feature-length commercial for Bannon.” I think Brody goes too far here. Klayman’s film does not necessarily represent Bannon in terms that would glorify him as, in Brody’s words, an “ostensible political mastermind.” Still, the film leaves that reading open to those predisposed to see him this way. More importantly, while there can be too much handwringing about the amplification issue, I think a good guide for such a judgment is whether the film’s critical insight outweighs the potential boost it might give Bannon’s notoriety. I doubt Klayman’s film seriously adds to Bannon’s media presence, but neither does it deliver the insight it could.
There are a lot of topics The Brink brushes against but doesn’t dive into. It’s not a sustained study of Bannon’s (or national populist) ideology or his movement’s mobilization or organizing tactics. It shows a variety of people fawning over Bannon but doesn’t inquire into this appeal. We do get a sense that Bannon sees himself as a dedicated soldier, willing to fight on while taking hard losses. But the film passes on any scrutiny of internal conflict within Bannon’s circles when things go awry – such as the failure that followed Bannon’s championing of Roy Moore, Bannon’s loss of his most important financial backers, or the personal insults Trump directed against him.
Bannon sees himself at the vanguard of a nationalist insurgency, but he identifies the true agent of this revolt as “the deplorables.” The film may be trying to pry apart Bannon’s attempt to align himself with this group of nominally ordinary people. We see Bannon traversing a world lined with private planes, luxury hotels, and crystal wine glasses. In one of the relatively rare moments when we hear Klayman’s voice, she asks Bannon to say where they are. While shoving popcorn in his mouth, Bannon starts laughing as he jokes that they are in the “populist headquarters” — the Van Nuys private airport. He shrugs, “I’m going to get so crushed in this film . . .”
While Bannon’s liberal critics will see contradiction here, the base Bannon speaks to may not be so disturbed by the wealthy lifestyle of a man who styles himself as someone fighting for working class “deplorables.” In Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class, Reece Peck argues that critics often want to discredit right wing media figures who claim to speak for the working class by revealing their wealth or their comfortable backgrounds. But Peck suggests this critique misses something important: the working class authenticity invoked by right wing figures rests more on an embodied performance of class as a cultural style than membership in an economic category.
In The Brink, we witness Bannon performing the cultural style of deplorableness constantly. At times, this aspect of his persona comes off as boorish and patronizingly sexist, such as his habit of telling women to stand between him and another man in photos to capture “a rose between two thorns.” But he also enacts this through more benign banalities: a rumpled appearance, choppy speech, irritability, mispronunciation of non-English names, overreliance on “dude,” slurping of energy drinks, a loquacious self-absorption common among certain men of his age . . . In short, we see him embody some of the “bad manners” populists flaunt to suggest they are of the people who are (supposedly) looked down upon in scorn by the taste-making elite.
The question is what vantage point does The Brink give us to see Bannon’s deplorableness: Can we distinguish between the banal and the oppressive? As it circulates from Sundance to the international festival circuit, does the film invite us to feel a sense of superiority that we can pick out Bannon’s foibles rather than deplore the cruel and very real consequences of his cause?