The most humanizing part of the Steve Bannon-centered documentary, The Brink, is when the former White House chief strategist is talking about how hideous he looked during the 2016 election. “I don’t know if you saw pictures, but I was scary,” he says. He's still hideous, especially when he wears two polo shirts at once, but the documentary takes a peek inside the monster and shows that, ultimately, his brain is hideous too.
Director Alison Klayman follows Bannon around in the wake of his ousting from the White House. It was a particularly frantic time, with the upcoming 2018 midterm elections in the U.S. and the 2019 parliamentary election in Europe. Bannon is indifferent to Trump insulting him on Twitter; all he cares about is spreading his message.
Much of the documentary tracks how Bannon took his movement international, as he meets with and advises nationalist politicians in Europe, like Brexit leader Nigel Farage. Bannon is trying to build a coalition between the far-right movements in Europe and America, uniting mostly under the message of "immigrants are bad." They all rage against liberal "identity politics" yet thrive on pushing white identity. It's both fascinating and repulsive to watch these people, who all hold power, sitting in a horribly wallpapered hotel dining room, shoving pasta in their mouths while discussing the problems with the high birth rate among Muslims in Belgium. Viewers can, at least, take comfort in the fact that this life is exceptionally bleak. Watching Bannon sip a can of Red Bull on a balcony overlooking the river from his hotel room in Venice is about as idyllic as it gets.
Bannon also travels around America, promoting Republican candidates, including Roy Moore, as well as those running in the 2018 midterms. He goes to fundraisers and rallies, spreading conspiracy theories about the Washington Post, George Soros, and other favorite topics. When Bannon is interrupted by a heckler during a speech, he jokes to the crowd, "Who invited my ex-wife?" They respond as if they are watching a stand-up comedian at the height of his career. Each time he has a photo-op with a woman and her husband, he instructs the woman to stand in between them. “A rose between two thorns,” he says, every single time. While he’s campaigning, the news is full of nightmares, from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing to the Tree of Life shooting. Bannon doesn’t react. He keeps going.
Throughout the documentary (a form of media), Bannon is repeatedly seen giving interviews with journalists (also the media), who have varying levels of disdain for their subject. "The more the mainstream media gets obsessed with this, the more it's gonna be your biggest ally," Bannon tells a group of far-right foreign leaders. Meanwhile, Bannon produces and releases his film TRUMP @WAR (the media) about the beauty of Trump's victory and how leftist Trump dissenters are violent hooligans. Bannon proudly refers to it as propaganda.
The Brink exists somewhere along a spectrum with other recent political documentaries, like Weiner or Get Me Roger Stone that attempt to document the chaos of American politics through one figure. But unlike Roger Stone, for example, which mythologizes the political consultant into a cult villain, The Brink takes a more objective approach. Klayman doesn't hide the fact that she disagrees with Bannon, but there are no talking heads offering commentary or dramatic edits.
Watching The Brink feels, in some ways, pointless. There has been no shortage of lengthy articles and documentaries trying to break down Bannon’s thinking, or more broadly, trying to understand how the hell we got here. But the chaos is so incessant that it’s helpful to have cohesive documentation of the timeline. It's just another rung in the Sisyphean ladder of trying to understand it all completely.