What if you got to follow a prominent, polarizing political figure around with a camera for a year and discovered mostly that he’s just a schlub who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing?
You’d have the documentary The Brink, which wants to raise the alarm about the racist nationalism taking hold in western democracies and instead makes rightwing strategist Steve Bannon out to be a bumbling, occasionally volcanic doofus who’s well-read but largely unable to assimilate information that doesn’t support his prejudices.
Which is not to say he’s not dangerous in the eyes of those who oppose his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-global agenda. But his success with Donald J. Trump, for whose 2016 campaign he was CEO for the final few months, looks to be more a coincidence of timing than talent. If he has a deeper strategy other than uniting fellow nationalists and slogging fear-mongering propaganda, the documentary doesn’t reveal it. The historical moment has certainly buoyed him, but his reading of history past and present is remarkably blinkered.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) shadowed Bannon on and off from just after his August 2017 ouster from the Trump White House through the 2018 midterm elections. Given his tenure at Goldman Sachs — the former president of which shows up now and again — Bannon seems to be someone who enjoys selling, even if he has traded in Wall Street equities in favor of a poorly articulated nationalist bombast.
The most telling scene is a panel discussion in Toronto for a largely conservative Canadian audience that nevertheless guffaws often at his pronouncements. He seems both determined and constitutionally unable to make a coherent argument in his own defense.
Klayman captures a lot of disconcerting private moments as Bannon woos European nationalists and is wooed by struggling U.S. candidates, but she avoids any talking-head interviews apart from her subject. Dissenting voices come chiefly from a few ballsy journalists interviewing Bannon and a lot of audio lifted from news coverage of the events that most impact him.
The result is both revealing and oddly uninformative. Bannon and his fellow nationalists come across as craven and generally uninterested in the lives of the common people they hope to appeal to, while the absence of sustained comment from those same common people leaves viewers no wiser about what’s really going on among voters who support Bannon and his ilk.
A repeated motif is Bannon’s refusal to admit, apparently even to himself, the nefarious undertow to his appeals, as symbolized by his demonization of left-wing financier George Soros. Attacks on Soros are clearly intended to play into voters’ anti-Semitism, yet Bannon denies that’s so and, nearly grinning, insists to a journalist that it’s just not so. The reporter just tells him to wipe the smile off his face.
Grade: B-plus. Not rated. Opens April 19 at Grail Moviehouse.
(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)