Of the many dubiously colorful figures President Trump has surrounded himself with during his political career, Stephen K. Bannon might be the most mythologized. Credited with helping Trump win the White House, the former investment banker and sometime filmmaker has been compared to Darth Vader and Satan himself — a megalomaniacal mastermind practiced in the dark arts of political subterfuge and neo-fascist provocation.
That reputation — which Bannon has gleefully courted, or at least done nothing to dispel — has elevated him into such a vaunted figure that even veteran documentarian Errol Morris found himself powerless before the Man Behind the Curtain. “American Dharma,” Morris’s alternately panicky and pretentious film about Bannon, was easily one of the most disappointing movies of the 2018 festival circuit, right up there with the similarly toothless, impotently outraged “Vice.”
Thank goodness, then, for “The Brink,” which is just the kind of lucid, observant, chillingly contradictory portrait Bannon deserves. Filmed for about a year between the fall of 2017 and last year’s midterm elections, this verite-style dive deep into Bannon’s psyche and practice may be the most candid depiction of Bannon we can hope for. What emerges isn’t the devil incarnate or even a garden-variety evil genius, but a (mostly) genial, (kind of) self-aware huckster whose intellectual arrogance is only equaled by his intellectual insecurity. To watch “The Brink” is an alarming but also strangely reassuring experience: Yes, Bannon’s professed global goal of enabling far-right strongmen is an enterprise worth taking seriously, and vigorously repudiating. But by pushing in closely on Bannon, “The Brink” proves how necessary it is to pull the lens back, to allow for a more strategic, less hysterically personalized view.
Filmed with an impressive degree of access by Alison Klayman, “The Brink” chronicles an eventful period in Bannon’s career: When the film opens at the “Breitbart Embassy” in Washington (named for the pugilistic conservative website Bannon co-founded and ran for a period), Bannon has recently left the White House as a presidential strategist and is on the verge of creating a nonprofit to spread the populist gospel he helped leverage to get his man elected.
What becomes immediately clear in these early scenes is what a good hang Bannon is: Friendly and self-deprecating, he nurses a green smoothie prepared by his nephew, having been stung by descriptions of his roseate, perennially rumpled appearance in the press. “The Brink” then follows Bannon as he embarks on a worldwide barnstorming tour, during which he will be fired from Breitbart, defunded by the Mercer family and courted by European groups with links to fascist movements — all the while carefully monitoring the U.S. congressional midterms.
Klayman, who was largely a one-woman operation during the filming of “The Brink,” never confronts Bannon on his most unsavory associations, leaving it to viewers to judge whether it’s hypocritical for a man to excoriate the “elites” while living on an archipelago of five-star hotels, black SUVs and private planes, or whether they buy it when he insists he takes no foreign money, moments before meeting with Chinese billionaire Miles Kwok.
Meanwhile, Bannon is an engaging and happy warrior whose composure is rattled only when one or two brave journalists have the temerity to ask him an actual follow-up question. (“She’s tough,” a rattled Bannon says after a confrontational interview on “Good Morning Britain.”) As unsettling as it is to see so many far-right figures laughing it up, over boozy lunches, about taking over the world (or at least the European Parliament later this spring), the most lingering image of Bannon in “The Brink” isn’t the Grim Reaper as much as the Music Man — one who isn’t hawking trombones or plumed hats but the cure-alls of “economic nationalism” and romanticized European nation-states.
At one point in “The Brink,” Bannon, who loves to invoke Leni Riefenstahl, if only to get his critics riled up, describes his election-eve film “Trump@War” as propaganda — with a wink, suggesting that maybe even he doesn’t believe the horseradish he’s selling. A few minutes later, one of his fans expresses her love for the film precisely because it isn’t propaganda. As the ultimate political avatar of the gig economy, Bannon is clearly adept at running his hustle. It’s up to the rest of us either to ignore him, out-argue him or, as “The Brink” does so entertainingly, demystify him for good.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief profanity. 90 minutes.