The Brink is Alison Klayman’s documentary portrait of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist (he shaped the ‘America First’ campaign, proposed the Muslim travel ban, etc.) and former boss of Breitbart News, the place where unsuccessful white men go to whine. The film follows him for 15 months from the autumn of 2017 as he attempts to organise far-right European parties into a ‘populist nationalist’ movement, and you may wish to look away when Nigel Farage smarms all over him as it’s not a pretty sight. (I’m a delicate flower, so could only watch from behind my hands.) But it is not insightful and, alas, utterly fails to capture the man behind the persona, if there is one. (He seems to have no personal life but did once try golf.)
At the time of filming, Bannon is living at the ‘Breitbart Embassy’, the smart townhouse in Washington DC where Breitbart has its headquarters. Does he have no proper home? He’s never asked. We’re never told. This place is $$$$$, but the funding remains murky. He wears two collared shirts, one on top of the other, for reasons that are also never explained, and his physique is, I would say, incipient W.C. Fields.
He is full of it. Trump wouldn’t have won without him ‘and he knows it’. Yet he didn’t mind being fired as he did not enjoy the White House. ‘There’s no glamour to the job and I hated every moment I was there,’ he lies. He is fervent about ‘economic nationalism’, which may be white supremacy by another name. Hard to know for sure. He travels to Rome and Venice and France and London via populist private jet (and while staying in populist five-star hotels), meeting the leaders of far-right parties like Filip Dewinter (from Belgium’s Vlaams Belang) who likes to commemorate the death of SS collaborators. He promises to help in any way he can. ‘I’ll set up something and will fund it somehow,’ he says. Bloody foreigner, coming over here, telling us how to do our jobs, they don’t say. It chills the blood, but would it be a mistake to take them seriously? Is this like senior Nazis meeting before everything kicked off in 1939? Or not? No idea. Meanwhile, Farage is not just a smarmer but also a smarmee. (New words for these new times.) ‘We’re fire-breathers,’ Bannon tells him, as Farage kvells, and I watch through my hands.
Klayman is not sympathetic to Bannon. That is obvious. But by slavishly following him from one meeting to another she has not only made a fairly dull and repetitive film, but is also serving the ideological machine and feeding the beast. This is the kind of documentary Bannon would wish to be made about him. He is only ever challenged twice, once by Susanna Reid, God bless her, who on Good Morning Britain tells him he’s an out-and-out racist, and once by Paul Lewis of the Guardian, who tells him all the dog-whistle anti-Semitism aimed at George Soros ‘isn’t funny’ so ‘please don’t smirk’.
Meanwhile, events like Charlottesville are allowed simply to slip by, as are the falsehoods. For instance, at one point he’s being driven by populist limousine down the Edgware Road when his companion, Raheem Kassam, who was head of Breitbart London at that time, points out all the Arab stores. ‘Wow! When did it flip?’ asks Bannon. ‘Ten years ago,’ replies Kassam. Given that the area has been populated by Arabs since the late 19th century, this is outrageous, but no one pulls them up on it. It did make you long for someone like, say, Louis Theroux to have been thrown into the mix. He might, at least, have been able to reveal the man behind the persona. If there is one.