The Brink (Alison Klayman, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
My major complaint about Errol Morris’ American Dharma (which has yet to secure release) – a film in which I nevertheless enjoyed significant parts when I saw it at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival – is that it lets its subject, sinister right-wing ideologue and political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, mostly off the hook for his role in destroying American democracy. Instead, Morris ends up celebrating the man’s strength as a manipulator of public opinion without piercing the bubble of self-regard that drives Bannon forward. In a welcome contrast, documentarian Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), with The Brink, now comes out with her own portrait of Bannon, far less stylized but far more comprehensive. We are, indeed, on the brink of a devastating precipice (though the title refers more to the potential final edge of Bannon’s own career), and it’s nice to watch a film from someone who recognizes that fact.
Amazingly, Klayman is given direct, embedded access to Bannon as he travels the globe in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. elections, gathering European populists and nationalists together to create a movement that can take over the European Union. All the while, he insists he is neither a racist nor white supremacist, in spite of rhetoric that proves the opposite. He even seems shocked at the suggestion, genuinely shocked, in fact, as opposed to mere posturing. Stunning to think of, if true. Or perhaps it is just an act, after all. Kudos to Paul Lewis of the British newspaper The Guardian, however, for twice (at least that’s all we see) calling out Bannon in direct interviews for his hate speech. If only our own American media were that forceful.
The beauty of this film is how it both allows Bannon to have his say while never letting his words go unchallenged. Even Klayman gets in on the pushback, at one point, refusing to accept that he can’t possibly know the anti-Semitic resonances of the word “globalist.” Along the way, we are treated to plenty of moments of behind-the-scenes Bannon as he tries to lose weight, cajole English demagogue Nigel Farage, or berate an underling, the sum total revealing him in all his humanity, whether good or bad, rather than a pure cartoon villain. In a bit of surreal overlap, Morris’ film even makes its way into this one, Bannon traveling to Venice for the premiere (which he never actually attends, distracted by meetings). At the end, when Bannon stakes his reputation on Republicans holding onto the House of Representatives, it’s a nice bit of comeuppance when he fails, so arrogant has he been up till then. Will he rise again? Probably. In the meantime, we have this fine cinematic document of his intentions should we ever doubt him for a second. The Brink beckons. Jump in.