The Brink, directed by Alison Klayman, documents former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon’s efforts to align with far-right world leaders and spread his nationalist agenda around the world. The film is expertly nuanced in position, and although it might appear to give Bannon the attention he loves, it succeeds in undermining him at every turn in terms of camera work, commentary, and design that employs a classic cinéma vérité approach. (DLH: 4/5)
Review by FF2 intern Dayna Hagewood
The Brink offers a distinct inside look into Bannon’s life after his White House career, and often captures moments that we would not see elsewhere. Bannon drinks health smoothies, frequently displays his undeniable wit and charm (regardless of his staunch positions), and flies all across the world in an effort to align with politicians both domestically and abroad. Though the film assumes a neutral fly-on-the-wall position, it is often through film language that the audience is able to break down his character and find the holes in his schemes. Because of this, The Brink is an excellently executed documentary. We are not fed what to think, we must do the work as spectators to uncover the real problems.
For example, Klayman often highlights Bannon’s problematic statements without directly commenting on them. In the beginning of the film, he often utters “a rose between two thorns” when taking photos with a woman and another man. This is emphasized much later in the film with a montage of Bannon saying the same thing with multiple different people who are taking photos with him. These kinds of edits seem to comment indirectly on Bannon’s discourse. While we are not told that these kinds of statements are problematic, the repetition and eeriness of each example seems to point to a deeper problem in his speech.
Klayman also often includes found footage voice-over narration of news events that do not match the image. When she includes commentary about the devastating Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, all that is left to the image is Bannon quietly texting or flying to his next meeting. He is never asked to comment on the event. This dissonance between image and soundtrack often highlights another fracture in Bannon’s politics through the film fabric itself rather than through direct commentary about the issue.
The Brink also does a wonderful job of capturing Bannon’s intelligence in a way that is both haunting and inspires action. He frequently uses the same kind of language that the left uses to target his audiences, which is both eye-opening and frightening. He often speaks about “waging a war” on the left and mentions that Democrats want to “take away rights.” Klayman’s attention to capturing these statements seems to imply that both sides use similar tactics in attempting to persuade voters, which is extremely important to be aware of.
Klayman also juxtaposes scenes that expose Bannon’s hypocrisy, which yet again shows us the fractures in his thinking. In one scene he speaks to a group of working class citizens and promises to fight for them. In the next scene, he is filmed in a five-star hotel or flying on a private jet. Bannon even comments on this in one of the scenes, mentioning that the director has captured every fancy place he has been in on his tour. Not only does this demonstrate the fractures in his thinking, but also clues audiences into the excessive amount of wealth supporting him.
The Brink is an important film to see. It does a wonderful job of navigating Bannon’s plan to persuade far-right politicians to team up and join his “populist” movement. It offers inside information about his personality, plans, and meetings and comments on everything subtly through camera work and editing rather than through explicit intervention. Not only do we learn more about the man behind many of Trump’s early plans, but we are also forced to think critically about the political situation of the world in a way that we normally might not. While forcing Bannon to the forefront as the star of the film might glamorize his power, it also undermines his tactics in a way that is smart, critically engaging, and an inspiring call to action.
© Dayna Hagewood (4/3/2019) FF2 Media
Featured Image: Stephen Bannon in The Brink
Top Image: Bannon reading the words of Lincoln, one of his inspirations.
Bottom Image: Bannon in his element, speaking to a large crowd.
Photo Credits: The Brink EPK, IMDB 2019
Does The Brink pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Not surprisingly, no. The film focuses on Bannon’s meetings and plans, which almost always involves powerful men. When there is a woman present, she is always only speaking with him or other men in the room.
Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
A few of us at FF2 saw this film together, and we were at odds over whether and to what extent The Brink condoned Bannon’s actions. We discussed how many moments in the film could “flip” depending on who was watching, letting liberals decry Bannon and letting conservatives see him as a statesman or intellectual. Dayna told us above how at certain points Klayman also undermined Bannon subtly with “The Office” style irony–however, as the many cheering crowds in The Brink can attest, Bannon is not an obvious buffoon like Michael Scott. If he managed to charm that theater full of people in Toronto (as shown in the film), why not some of The Brink’s viewers?
Bannon says it himself in the film: “there is no bad media.” He says this in reference to Trump’s election, and I’m going to spend some time on that fact because it’s crucial to my point. During the 2016 election cycle, Trump was given disproportionate levels of coverage by most major news networks; this was true from the earliest days of the Republican primary. As readers will probably remember, he even got to host SNL, one of the most consistently liberal shows on TV. As Bannon said, and as far-right demagogues have been saying since the first fascist movements sprang up in Europe, exposure is good for fascists no matter what the form. The SNL episode softballed Trump, and even if it had posed some real questions to his fascist worldview, it still would have done nothing to alienate the people who Trump was really trying to reach.
This is the most important thing to grasp: fascists are not primarily trying to make everyone into a fascist. They are trying to gather likeminded fascists on the one hand, while on the other hand neutralizing the ability of the rest of society to resist them. Inserting Trump into media like SNL gave him a place within the dialogue of liberal society. When fascists get access to national media, two things happen: first, likeminded people are emboldened or radicalized toward fascism. Second, opposed liberals shake their heads, perhaps change the channel, and ultimately trust in exactly what I’ve seen many viewers of “The Brink” saying: that audiences will be able to tell that fascism is bad, and vote for the most logical and right candidate instead. These people were never going to vote for the fascists, and seeing fascists get “owned,” “shut down,” “eviscerated,” etc., on their favorite comedy news show makes them believe they don’t have to do anything to counter fascist action—because after all, can’t people make these judgments for themselves?
It’s heads fascists win, tails we lose. They have nothing to risk in alienating the center as long as they can keep the center in “civil” dialogue with them—like in an action movie, as long as you keep a person talking, they aren’t shooting. Example: Nancy Pelosi et al. have been decrying Trump for his entire presidency, but you can’t tell from their voting records. Another example: Klayman followed Bannon around for a year trying to make subtle jabs at his ideas from behind the camera instead of just shooting him. (If liberals have spent the past two years talking about how Trump is Voldemort, whatever happened to the old joke that the Harry Potter books would have been over a lot faster if they just shot him?)
When you come right down to it, Bannon would not have allowed this film to be made if he felt it was a threat to him. As the film shows, he is an expert manipulator and political strategist, and should not be underestimated—so when he tells us there is no bad media for his cause, the first thing we should do is believe him. Bannon’s enthusiastic cooperation with the filmmaker should be our first red flag that this film, whatever else it may be, is not an effective counter to Bannon’s philosophy. This is all without my even touching on the troubling fact that Klayman’s producer, Marie Therese Guirgis, worked for Bannon for years and was the primary contact that got her this access.
This brings me to my thesis, which I will lay out for you in a manner deliberately oppositional to the “subtle” rhetorical style of The Brink: even if Klayman meant to let Bannon’s repulsive ideology speak for itself, this filmmaking style is, *at the very best,* a filmic reproduction of these fallacies of dealing with fascism. You may feel like I’m spoon-feeding this to you, but I believe this is an issue where there can be no ambiguity. I know where I stand on Steve Bannon, and perhaps the problem with The Brink is that it too knows where it stands—it stands in room after room with him for almost a year, letting him articulate his politics and lay the groundwork for his political movement without hindrance. This is all I really needed to know.