'The Brink': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
How did this guy get so important?

Alison Klayman shadows political operative Steve Bannon from the time he leaves the White House to the 2018 midterms.

Midway through The Brink, Alison Klayman's tag-along portrait of political strategist Steve Bannon, the subject sagely tells an associate that it doesn't matter if they're too underfunded to spread their message effectively: The media's obsession with vilifying him will do the work for them.

Based only on what's contained here, that obsession is hard to justify: This Bannon is a snooze, occasionally making a wry aside but nearly never saying anything unusually smart or new. The supposed evil genius behind Donald Trump's election is a more compelling figure when captured, Sasquatch-like, in one of those rumpled-wino photographs often attached to news stories about him. Though it would surely be unwise for journalists to stop paying attention to his comings and goings, it's hard to see what ordinary viewers at any point on the political spectrum will gain from this particular status report. Perhaps Bannon, like Dick Cheney, is trying to make himself so boring we stop keeping tabs.

Acknowledging the banality-of-evil factor at its start, the film listens as Bannon recounts a trip to the sites of WWII death camps. Noting the difference in atmosphere between sites where Nazis used pre-existing buildings and those they built specifically to house the people they persecuted, Bannon reflects on the far-away architects who "totally detached themselves from the moral horror" they designed. It's as if he wrote this off-the-cuff observation knowing it would be used by a filmmaker critical of his own global plans.

But while we're allowed to sit in on many of the meetings where those plans are designed, the drama of the first two Trump administration years seems to occur mostly beyond him, leaving him to schmooze hopefully with hatemongers in other parts of the world.

Once the movie is past the mundanities of his life — he's juicing to lose weight; he loves kombucha and knows this revelation will weaken its appeal to hipsters — we go on the road with Bannon, hearing boosterish speeches he gives to assorted right-wing groups. He assures them they're not racists, but the opposite: His "economic nationalism ... binds us together" regardless of race or creed, he claims, comfortable that his audience is not counting the number of non-white faces in the room. And he takes lots and lots of pictures with fans. In addition to Bannon's odd habit of wearing one shirt on top of another, Klayman is intent on highlighting another unimportant personal quirk: Whenever he's asked to pose with a male/female couple, Bannon instructs the woman to stand in the middle, like "a rose between two thorns."

We see talk of COAR, his new 501(c)4, sit in on his interviews with Republicans planning to run for Congress in 2018 and see him put out feelers to right-wingers in other countries. He wants to consult for viable-looking populist parties worldwide, hoping to promote a "unified, populist agenda." As he starts to put together the coalition called The Movement, he has dinner with charmers like Belgium's Filip Dewinter and Sweden's Kent Ekeroth — connections he'll later try to deny when journalists accuse him of teaming up with racists. (Like Trump, Bannon likes to sidestep things with a statement like "Oh, that guy? Nah, we were just at the same event once.")

These meetings are mostly less interesting than they might sound. Better are some of his private and public interactions with reporters, a couple of whom press hard on what they describe as his dog-whistle messaging to racists. Bannon denies it all, and seems like he might actually believe what he's saying.

Klayman marks the passage of time with the big headlines that arrive while Bannon's taking meetings. A White House tell-all book makes waves; an anonymous administration official writes in The New York Times of a secret "Resistance" preventing Trump from blowing up the world. While we might hear Bannon respond to some of this action, the thing he's most concerned with is the midterm election cycle: Finally, we see him lose his cool (such as it is) in the campaign's final days, doing tense analytics of poll data and snapping at underlings. After the bad-for-Bannon news, Klayman offers progressives a soothing montage of the voices of ascendant women, coming into the halls of power and hoping to undo some of what Bannon and his ilk have done.

Production companies: aliklay productions, Claverie Films
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director-director of photography: Alison Klayman
Producers: Marie Therese Guirgis, Alison Klayman
Executive producers: Adam Bardach, Hayley Pappas, Bryn Mooser, Matt Ippolito
Editors: Brian Goetz, Marina Katz
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

93 minutes