For one year, director Alison Klayman (whose last Sundance film was the wonderful 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) followed the work and life of far-right political activist and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Her camera stayed glued on him and his cohorts, from the cramped dining room of the “Breitbart Embassy” to European conference rooms with other budding far-right kingmakers of different nationalistic parties.
It’s a veritable “Legion of Doom” we see planned—under Bannon’s supervision and counsel, of course—to shift global populist sentiment into a power grab emphasizing xenophobia and anti-immigration policies that ring of the Muslim Ban, Bannon’s claim to infamy in early 2017. We also see the politics of Bannon’s “winning strategy” play out and ever-adapt as one failure follows another, starting with his ousting from the White House and subsequent humiliation after the Roy Moore campaign.
That’s a lot of politics to sift through, which makes watching The Brink roughly equivalent to a root canal. You know you need one, and yes, your dentist recommends it but the procedure is painful, and all you can wonder is whether or not all this could have been prevented.
It should be stated clearly that Alison Klayman does not share the politics of Steve Bannon, far from it. And in the end, she and her producer had full creative control, so there is a firm and unambiguous bias filtering this footage into the final product.
To offer greater clarity still, I’m liberally minded who would like nothing better than for the Steve Bannons of the world to be shamed from the public square for what I consider a morally outrageous assault on the value of human life all over the world, which this documentary certainly illuminates matter-of-factly. There’s no objectivity I or the director can offer in good faith without trading our integrity for the false semblance of a “balanced take.” It simply doesn’t exist for me due to the rhyme of history as it pertains to nationalist rhetoric and its existentially damning implications.
The Brink isn’t conversion therapy, it’s homework. It’s a refresher for audiences who’ve grown tired of following every beat of the never-ending news cycle and need their teeth examined once again. It’s certainly a feat that Klayman and her post-production team were able to finish this film so soon after the U.S. Midterm Elections, which serve as the documentary’s climax and an almost eerily satisfying catharsis considering what has happened politically in just the last month. This isn’t necessarily a film only for liberals, but rather, anyone not fully bought into the Trump propaganda apparatus, which includes a large swath considering this film’s intended global appeal.
Technically speaking, The Brink is standard fare for efficient documentary filmmaking. There are no gimmicks, only seriously good editing and decision-making. Klayman doesn’t pretend to be a journalist here, in fact a scene later in the film involving an interview with a true journalist with The Guardian showcases this in one of the film’s best scenes, a biting reckoning in which Bannon finds himself cornered by his own lies and admissions of racist language, including a post-interview dialogue in which he refuses to admit that he believes he’s some sort of villain.
Speaking of which, Klayman’s first film was about Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who used his work to protest the communist government. In many ways, it’s easy to consider Weiwei a modern hero, a notable juxtaposition from Klayman’s latest subject, a man who simply can’t see past “winning,” even when he loses. It’s a fascinating character study, and literally, because Bannon certainly is a character in an almost fictional sense. His swagger comes off as scripted as you may suspect, especially when the documentary reveals his rare moments of anger over banal micro-management. Losing even an ounce of control is enough to set Bannon off, despite actual crises and human rights violations bouncing off him like teflon.
Eventually, the facade fades. It’s not about the populism, it’s about making it to the next news cycle, using whatever tools necessary, then acting dumbfounded when reality makes itself known. On the one hand, The Brink can at times feel like an amplification of a poisonous profile, one many will consider undeserved and more harmful than instructive. But Klayman maintains an insightful commentary by keeping the camera focused squarely on reticent themes of contradictions: Bannon’s Lincoln obsession, his elitist lifestyle as he simultaneously denounces them, and an aversion to identity politics as he tours rooms full of people he unites as “Deplorables” who should vote on their, well, identities. The message of The Brink is clear from start to finish, and it couldn’t be a more timely presentation.