In Alison Klayman’s new political documentary The Brink, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is accompanied around the world, from live speaking appearances to hotel meeting rooms, documenting his exploits in the year following his departure from the Trump administration.
As a documentarian, Alison Klayman knows the value of wielding a light touch behind the camera. In her new film The Brink, she places ex-Breitbart chairman and one-time White House strategist Steve Bannon before the lens, having gained privileged access to record the year which followed his tumultuous departure from the Trump administration. Occasionally, she speaks up, challenging Bannon’s professed ignorance to the impact of his own words, but for the main part, hers is a steady presence behind the camera, frequently fading from notice as Bannon puts himself on display, enjoying his own self-constructed spectacle.
The banal is mixed with the shameless as Bannon glugs Red Bull, argues with his staff, pores over the Financial Times and jets around the world setting up his new far-right political organisation, ‘The Movement’. There are also crucial midterm elections to worry about and we see Bannon stress and strut the world over, convening with other anti-immigration political figures, debating how to shake up ‘establishment’ figures within the Republican party and in the world more generally.
Bannon is a ripe subject from the outset: acutely aware of the camera, lapping up attention whenever it’s offered at public speaking events, but also making wry remarks about how he may look in the final edit. He regrets leaving a kombucha drink at home before a talk radio appointment – “it gets me jacked”, he explains – then deadpans that its share price will “probably fall 50%” when people find out he drinks it. It’s a small moment, like many in this documentary, that says a lot about the personality of the man being profiled. Self-deprecating as well as self-aggrandising, giving himself a negative power far beyond the reality of the world we live in.
The triumph of Klayman’s film lies in those moments where Bannon feels sufficiently relaxed and the mask slips, letting his media persona fall to one side, revealing more of the ego and desire for power that propels him forward in life. There is a great naturalism to those scenes, captured backstage, in a taxi, in-between appointments, shuttling from A to B, but they also appear hard-won: a testament to an exhausting year of chasing after someone only too happy to be chased. The film is a compelling, concerning artefact which shows demagoguery in action, without coming across as heavy-handed. It’s hard not to laugh along with Bannon when he’s being charming, a mercurial force in love with his own image, not always as in control of the conversation as he seems to think.