DIR: Alison Klayman • PRO: Marie Therese Guirgis, Alison Klayman • DOP: Alison Klayman • ED: Brian Goetz, Marina Katz • MUS: Ilan Isakov, Dan Teicher’ • CAST: Stephen K. Bannon, Louis Aliot, Sean Bannon
White nationalist Steve Bannon has been a shady figure in politics for years. Many of us would love to return to the golden age where ‘Sloppy’ Steve was virtually unknown by the masses, and mainly spent his time quietly hobnobbing with, and in, the lunatic fringe. There, he peddled his extreme views and conspiracy theories to other Nazi sympathisers through the likes of Breitbart and his questionable films. Ultimately, it was his work as a political strategist on the 2016 presidential campaign which catapulted him to the status of celebrity racist; Trump’s surprise victory meant Bannon became a divisive household name internationally, which provided a pretty loud platform for his special brand of xenophobia.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman begins following Steve for The Brink soon after his relatively amicable resignation from the White House in August 2017. Although not explicitly stated in the film, Steve repeatedly insists that he resigned because of how unpleasant he found it working there. He says this a lot. However, like-many a recently dumped ex, he remains infatuated. He spends his time rallying for Trump, talking about Trump and even making films for, and about, Trump. This, Steve concedes, is all propaganda for the right. In fact, very early on in the film, Steve monologues about on the successes of Nazi Germany, admitting his admiration for their processes, but just falling short of outright agreeing with their goals.
It’s clear from the get-go where Klayman’s political leanings lie; in this fly-on-the wall documentary she gets excessive access to his world. Her voice can be heard on occasion, picking at the holes in Steve’s narrative or questioning his allegiances. While The Brink highlights Steve’s hypocrisy and thinly veiled racism early on, what shows Klayman’s restraint and talents as a filmmaker, is also the balance she gives. For all his many, many, many flaws, Steve comes across as warm, folksy and charming. She picks up on all the quirks that makes him relatable, such as his desire to lose weight, his penchant for fizzy drinks and his go-to catchphrases. This was the first time I could see why the other side could be so seduced by such eloquently phrased delivery from what appears to be such a gentle man.
However, underneath the superficial niceties, Steve Bannon is as shrewd as they come, and a very subtle bragger at that. He’s a former investment banker with a Harvard Business School education. In a public forum, he’s quick to denounce the ‘elites’, however, to his entourage and Klayman, he humblebrags about learning strategies in Goldman Sachs while taking private jets to 5-star hotels. In fact, the public persona he presents feels structured, and carefully curated even through the film. Steve regularly gives various outlandish characters loud introductions, (for example the ever lovely Nigel Farage, or Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok) and then slinks away, going ‘off the record’. Klayman still manages to catch him with his guard down on occasion, banging his head against a wall, firing staff, or shouting profanities down a phone. Overall, the time frame is relatively short, and while Klayman covers his work riling up the far right in Europe, she finishes up just after the US 2018 midterm elections.
There are moments in this film that are perhaps the most telling as to his true nature, such as when Steve’s confronted over his antisemitism by Klayman and separately by a journalist for The Guardian. He starts to sneer like a delighted, guilty dog, who’s just ripped up an expensive leather couch cushion and is absolutely loving it. Either Bannon is an evil genius trying to usher in the age of the Fourth Reich, or he’s a sleazy snake-oil salesman desperate for attention from those with actual power. Judging by this film, he could be either – or both.
The Brink is released 12th July 2019