On its surface, The Brink appears to be a largely neutral examination of Steve Bannon’s involvement during the 2018 midterm elections. But just like Bannon himself, there’s far more going on beneath the surface. The documentary is actually a sly, biting critique of a man who thinks he has the world fooled.
The Brink follows Bannon starting in fall of 2017. Back in those days, he was in the good graces of both his alt-Right news organization Breitbart and the President himself. By the end of the documentary – just after the wrecking ball of the 2018 midterms – Bannon has been ousted from the White House, Breitbart, and is spending much of his time in Europe trying to unify various nationalist movements there. Director Alison Klayman is often the sole film crew following him across these years and countries, and it feels as though she blended into their surroundings so much so that Bannon and his colleagues forgot about her from time to time. The candid moments are at times unbelievable. Then again, a man as cocky as Bannon seems to think he can do no wrong.
Occasionally, we hear Klayman ask a clarifying question or push Bannon a little bit on his stance, but the greatest way she shows her criticism is letting the man put his foot in his own mouth. Moments where Bannon clearly thinks he’s being charming or witty are edited together in such a way to subtly highlight that this is not wit or intelligence, but a rehearsed and manufactured routine. Klayman doesn’t blatantly call attention to these moments with graphics or music (as 2004’s Outfoxed did to Bill O’Reilly). Rather, she gives the audience time to put things together on their own over time. For example, the film never hesitates to show Bannon’s inconsistent relationship with food, but only ever engages talking to him about his weight once. We just hear Bannon talking about eating healthy and wanting to lose weight and shift online commenters away from his appearance, followed by many innocuous scenes of him eating fried food and chugging Red Bulls. His hypocrisy is there for us to see, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of its visibility.
This subtlety makes it possible to access the heart of the film and Bannon’s agenda on two separate levels. If you were to believe his words, Bannon is just a guy who wants to protect America’s history and future by defending borders and family values. He claims not to be sexist or racist; he just so happens to be the smartest guy in the room who has everything figured out. But, if you watch The Brink closely, much of this is not the case. Bannon is caught on camera several times lying, being racist, and being terribly sexist. He’s just too full of himself to think that someone else would notice something he himself won’t ever admit. Bannon fans, who accept his story and his lies, might not notice these things, but critical media consumers who are willing to pay attention to his missteps will be able to quickly see the cracks in his façade.
Spending any length of time with Steve Bannon, whether through a screen or in person, is a trying experience. The Brink offers keen observations and attentiveness to his shortcomings. The film is a smart look at a disturbing man.