A former colleague from his days as a Goldman Sachs investment banker is chatting with Stephen K. Bannon near the end of the new documentary about him, “The Brink.”
“People who don’t know you,” he says, will find Bannon “disarming.”
Bannon can be funny, flippant. He’s given to moments of self-deprecation about his weight, his politics and views. He doesn’t seem to lose his cool, unlike his former employer, Donald Trump. We don’t even hear him swear.
That’s the Bannon at the beginning and middle of “The Brink.” He cracks jokes during public appearances, calls his audience “deplorables,” even though most of the crowds he’s seen speaking to in Alison Klayman’s film — post 20016 election — are the very “elites” he railed against, well-heeled “country club Republicans.”
But stick with “The Brink,” our Goldman Sachs man seems to suggest. We’ll see something more.
As Klayman tracks Bannon through the whirlwind of 2017-2018, basically kicking off after Bannon was forced out of the White House when the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. blew up and Bannon’s “own it” attitude towards white nationalism became a perceived Trump weakness, to his whirlwind media tour afterwards, his triumphant holding of audiences in Europe, “organizing” or at least meeting with the far right “nationalist” parties of Britain, France, Italy, Sweden and Belgium, we get a peek at the man behind the self-described “gross-looking Jabba the Hutt drunk.”
How much attention was Bannon getting in 2017? Royal Family/Meghan Markle coverage. His every stop, supporting Judge Roy Moore’s Senate campaign in Alabama, his meetings with the chief cheerleader for Brexit and other far right party operators, covered by major media outlets in the U.S. and abroad.
Hell, there were even two documentaries being shot about him, almost at the same time. So hats off to Klayman for getting “The Brink” into theaters before “American Dharma,” by Oscar winning documentarian Errol Morris, reaches the viewing public.
Bannon was magnanimous, quoting Lincoln at a time when that first Republican president was at his lowest ebb and the Republic was “on the brink,” as a coping mechanism when things start to turn against him.
But by the time November of 2018 rolls around and Bannon sees the storm coming, estranged from Trump or not, frantically rallying the faithful for embattled candidates we’ve seen him meeting with to get his endorsement in the film’s first act, we get the cursing, defensive micro-manager.
Yes, there’s a documentary crew following him around, so when he’s bluntly cut to pieces on “Good Morning, Britain” — Bannon will only grin and say, “She’s tough. Tough.”
What “she” said? “If you’re a ‘fine person,’ you wouldn’t march alongside a neo-Nazi.”
He doesn’t show any temper when his own words are thrown back at him, a Guardian reporter who has done his homework contradicting his use of “dog whistle” phrases, setting up enemies as (Jewish) “globalists” and the like.
Trump taught him a lesson, Bannon says, which one can imagine the credit-stealing Trump passing off as his own, even thought P.T. Barnum coined the phrase a century ago. “There’s no such thing as bad media.”
We meet him in a cringe-worthy moment, expressing admiration for the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, which he’d visited in his previous life making a film. He’s in awe of “the German perfection” of this machine for “mass murder,” and what can only be described as frank admiration for the “people who totally detached themselves from any moral horror of it.”
“Humans can actually do this. Not devils. Humans that are just humans.”
You can see why Bannon spends so much of “The Brink” defending himself from charges of anti-Semitism, even as he works with Jewish Republicans running for Congress. The “racism” tag seems a harder sell as he cozies up to a Bannon Republican Senate candidate who happens to be black, or partners with the London chief of the Breitbart far right media site which was Bannon’s entry into Trump world.
Perhaps the film’s great moment of disconnect is when that Londoner, Brit-accented Raheem Kassam, sneers out the car window to Bannon in London — “Look around you. It is lit’rally ALL Arab stores.”
Bannon spends “lit’rally” the entire film denying that his “economic nationalism” is just old fashioned nationalism/fascism rebranded.
He makes sense when he talks about why 2016 happened, admitting that “hate” is a strong motivator when talking about the boogeymen he helped Trump identify to his “deplorables” — Clinton, and especially the Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
But Klayman, to her credit, doesn’t just observe and let him spout his worldview and “reality” of “alternate facts”. He ridicules Democrats for their black/brown/yellow/LGBT “identity politics,” and she suggests “the Deplorables” are his “identity politics” crutch.
“And your point is?”
The film glosses over Bannon’s suggestion, in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” that Trump’s arms-length-but-colluding involvement in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians was “treasonous.” We see Bannon meeting with old chum and Trump insider PRESENT at that meeting, mercenary firm Blackwater founder Erik Prince, as if nothing at all happened.
We hear him go out of his way to mention the “vibe” one gets from “a church, a mosque, a temple” and how that contrasts with the poisonous atmosphere of the White House he was just kicked out of.
We hear him pound his “not a racist, a populist” message time and again, even when he’s meeting with Big Money at the Republican Society Patriot Dinner crowd at that bastion of the Unreconstructed Confederate South, The Citadel. Then he poses for selfies with a couple of fans, bull-necked white South Carolina cops.
He never explains his assault on the European Union, and there’s no overt Russian connection made to Bannon in the film. Even the European reporters, who give him a harder time than the American ones (with the occasional exception) fail to highlight what’s really behind his efforts to “weaken Europe.”
Whatever else the Harvard man might be, he’s no idiot. His candidate reached his “people” because “the elites are content with ‘managing’ our decline,” with NAFTA, the EU, trade deals and Wall Street absorb and merge mania.
Perhaps its going to take two documentaries to plumb the depths of Bannon’s persona, what drives this frump who rails against elites even as he’s serving their purposes so well. Klayman’s has an incomplete yet polished feel to it. There’s too much we don’t find out.
But Morris is going to be hard pressed to come up with a better illustration of what a dangerous figure the subject he shares with Klayman is than Klayman’s eviscerating montage of Bannon making George Soros his favorite whipping boy, eager crowds asking “Why hasn’t George Soros been arrested?” and the mailing of bombs to Soros and others, and the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
It may be all just a game to him, some late life rationalization that his “dedicated” core of unswayable Breitbart Media “deplorables” has made him matter. Getting the angry, the resentful and the armed and unhinged worked up will be his real legacy. Whatever the future of his “nationalist” wave holds, he’s already getting people killed.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Stephen K. Bannon
Credits:Directed by Alison Klayman. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:31