The Brink: What Would You Say If I Should Let You Speak?, by David Bax
For a guy who openly claims that the president wouldn’t have been elected without him, Steve Bannon doesn’t come across as some kind of mastermind in Alison Klayman’s The Brink. Yet he does seem effortlessly able to draw like-minded people from all economic classes to his cause of dangerous white nationalism. Also, for a guy who seems keenly aware of the political and cultural (maybe those should be switched as Bannon says that, “Culture is upriver of politics”) identity of him and his followers, whom he calls “deplorables” in a reference to Hilary Clinton that becomes sadder and more desperate the further the film gets from the 2016 presidential election, he’s also shockingly aloof when it comes to the nature and substance of the critiques against him. Klayman’s documentary is an almost bemusing portrait of a man riding the wave of his own bullshit and not noticing that it’s petering out as the wind begins to change.
With The Brink, Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) follows Bannon roughly from the time he was fired from the White House up to midterm election day in November of 2018. Among other things, he spent much of this time in Europe, establishing a continental, far right, white supremacist organization called The Movement, attempting to aid the same brand of hateful populism throughout the EU that he helped bring to power here in the United States. The foul depths of The Movement’s platform only gradually come to be understood, though. At first, The Brink just seems to be about a man with an unusual job, a grudging tendency toward healthy juice blends and a group of young, eager assistants and hangers-on, including his own nephew.
Starting with the quick and unceremonious loss of his job in the Trump administration after the president’s repugnant, immoral response to the fatal neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, The Brink is essentially a catalogue of Bannon’s failures, including his stepping down from Breitbart News, the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic far right commentary website he co-founded, only months after returning to it. Klayman, of course, doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for the man but neither does she turn vindictive. For the most part in this deceptively simple documentary, she just watches and lets us do the same.
What we learn from watching is that Bannon and company are so ensconsed in their reductive, misleading, self-righteous rhetoric that they are only able to see their opposition in the most superficial terms, if they see them at all. Bannon seems surprised, for example, to learn that it’s not just “screaming liberals” but “good people” (by which he appears to mean rich, white people) who hate President Trump. In another shocking scene, one of Bannon’s aides expresses a suspicion that the mail bombs sent by right wing terrorist Cesar Sayoc might be a hoax because “leftists are typically more violent.” At this moment, The Brink will rightly lead more thoughtful viewers to reflect on how everyone, to some extent or another, exists inside similarly self-confirming bubbles. But, still, not everyone’s political ideology is so unabashedly hateful as that of men like Bannon.
When Senator Clinton spoke the word “deplorables,” in reference to Donald Trump’s supporters, it was a costly and stupid political blunder. But that doesn’t mean that Bannon and the acolytes who have come to self-identify with the term aren’t doing their level best to prove her right. The racism on display is so deep-seated and expressed so casually, it becomes clear that these folks don’t even see it as racism. The birth rate among immigrants to America is spoken of as if we all just know and accept that it’s a bad thing, as opposed to being the way this resilient, ever-changing nation was built to work; built, that is, on the back of the genocide of the native population. In a moment that’s almost funny in its display of ignorance, Bannon is corrected on the pronunciation of a Chinese name. “Do you know anyone who pronounces it that way?” he askes. More than a billion people is the reply but his dismissal of it speaks volumes; those aren’t the people he cares about.
It’s only because of this lack of self-awareness that Bannon would have allowed Klayman this much access, especially since he’s oddly terrible at defending his positions when faced with even boilerplate challenges to his rhetoric, such as that he pretends to abhor “identity politics” even while engaging in it to cohere his base or that the word “globalist” rings with anti-Semitism. Perhaps Bannon, the former film producer, thought he would come across better in a “warts and all” (literally; he’s often seen without the makeup public figures wear for televised appearances) portrayal. But there’s nothing endearing or respectable about a guileless racist. He’s still just a racist. The Brink shows us that but, then, we already knew.