Director Alison Klayman's vérité film aims to give the right-wing nationalist ideologue enough rope to hang himself
The poster for Alison Klayman's new documentary, The Brink, features the portly silhouette of Steve Bannon (in white, appropriately), the world at his feet. The globe appears like a soccer ball he's about to boot.
Bannon's goal -- the net he's shooting at -- is to reestablish a pre-World War II world order where nationalism is the defining geopolitical force, motivating countries to pursue their interests without reference to the good of others beyond their own closed borders. This is a worldview that brought us Fascist Italy, Franco's Spain, and above all Nazi Germany where nationalism reached its apotheosis. The good old days.
This is an ideology embraced by Donald Trump, the candidate Bannon helped put into office and then steered, for a time, as White House chief strategist. And it's an ideology simpatico with Vladimir Putin, a nationalist figure who seeks a divided and weakened Europe and a Russia liberated to recapture old Soviet republics (see Ukraine and the Baltic States).
Bannon...doesn't deal honestly and that goes into also his public politicking, messaging, in terms of propaganda.
The petulant Trump fired Bannon after the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, in which Bannon, among other things, made unflattering comments about Don Jr. Trump may have abandoned him, but Bannon hasn't given up on his old boss, who in October of last year proudly declared himself a nationalist. The Bannon we meet in The Brink is shifting his attention to Europe, trying to boost nationalist movements in Italy, Germany, Holland and elsewhere.
Klayman took a vérité approach to the filmmaking, following Bannon on his travels around Europe and the U.S. advocating for what he terms "economic nationalism," populism and anti-globalism. In that sense, the film offers an unfiltered view of Bannon at work spreading his message. For the first half of the film, in particular, Klayman resists the urge to overtly challenge Bannon's ideology.
"My role there was I get to be in the room so I can say my piece through this film," she explains to Nonfictionfilm.com. "All of the time it was about me sitting back... It was a lot of biting my tongue. I think I had a pretty good poker face, although it always like my eyebrows going up... That's why I was there in the room and taking it in because I wanted to share it with you."
It's a global revolt... We're on the right side of history.
Klayman's got faith that viewers will see Bannon is actually on the wrong side of history, promoting a belief system that is fundamentally racist and xenophobic.
"I mean, I've gotten the range" of reactions to The Brink, Klayman reveals. "But you know what I haven't heard from anyone? 'Now I think he has some good ideas.' Or like, 'I'm going to check them out.' And that is totally the line that I wanted to walk there... It was hard, because it should be that the ideas and the tactics are deconstructed, debunked, shown for what they are and show also that the film doesn't condone them."
The Brink is now playing in LA, New York and Washington DC. Click here for more info. See trailer below.
Klayman filmed several strategy sessions between Bannon and European nationalists. An she was there for several get-togethers between Bannon and Nigel Farage, the right-wing former leader of the UK Independence Party and a chief promoter of Brexit. At one point Bannon tells Farage his plan is to "knit together this populist nationalist movement throughout the world."
Bannon, then, doesn't disguise his plans by any means, although he's short on policy specifics to accompany his mission statement, aside from restricting immigration (of brown people) into Europe and the U.S.
"When you really drill down on the substance of his rhetoric and also what the actual policies are that he puts forward it's all about restricting movement," Klayman asserts. "It's not really about changing the balance of wealth or major economic issues... Does he believe in capital controls? He doesn't believe in capital controls... When you push him on that it ends up getting to a place where he'll either be trying to change the subject or he will admit, 'Look, it's early days. This populist, nationalist movement, we still need to figure out the ideas. We need to get those think tanks.'"
Klayman adds, "I think Bannon is not honest, he doesn't deal honestly and that goes into also his public politicking, messaging, in terms of propaganda... That's the thing that is scary to me, that he could succeed not because his ideas are better but because he fools people."
Most of the left now finds Trump odious. As for Bannon, he comes across in The Brink as surprisingly -- disturbingly -- affable. Klayman acknowledges, "Some [viewers] are like, 'I didn't expect to think Steve Bannon seems kind of fun to hang out with.'"
"In fact he's actually very charismatic, he can be very charming. He has a really great self-deprecating sense of humor," notes producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked for Bannon years ago after he bought a company where she was employed. "When he wants to, he can really listen -- he takes a lot of interest in you and is kind of a great conversationalist, raconteur. I think those are qualities he uses and certainly we see him use them with the press. I think he uses them with other foreign politicians. I think that his charm and his charisma are big tools in his arsenal that the American public was not aware of."
Bannon's ability to make himself, and thus his views, appear reasonable and even "likable" might convince some that it's better not to give him attention or a platform to espouse his views. But Klayman and Guirgis don't see it that way. They draw a distinction between an interview-style approach to a Bannon documentary, which they rejected in favor of vérité. Bannon goes on his shambolic nationalist road show but the dubious and dangerous nature of his ideology comes through, the filmmakers believe.
"I would agree there are contexts, like just putting him on a stage or interviewing him in a film, you could argue that that's giving him a platform because I don't think you can challenge him properly," Guirgis observes. "I don't think you can show enough about how the operation works by just interviewing him on stage or in a film... But I don't think that if we just ignore somebody like him completely -- he's not going to go away. He's still doing his work."
Klayman adds, "I don't think it's a question of should we cover him or people like him or not. It's how. That was in the front of my mind at every step of the way and I thought about this kind of question when I went to sleep every night."
The director maintains, "I never underestimated him And I wanted to put it even in the movie to say he's seeking legitimization through mainstream media. He's seeking to reach new audiences... And so even if, yes, it's reaching new audiences for him, so what? So new audiences have seen that he promotes racist ideologies or there's things he's good at and things he's bad at... The engine of [the movie] wasn't just blindly, 'We need to understand our enemy and blah, blah, blah.' No, it was how do you not give him a platform and expose him. It's not like you can not cover him."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.