No one talks about Steve Bannon anymore. Ordinary busy people – the ones who aren’t politics junkies – might faintly remember when he was big news. He was the guy who frequently looked like he had slept in his clothes while serving as chief strategist for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, and later, for awhile, as the Trump White House’s pet intellectual.
In her new documentary The Brink, filmmaker Alison Klayman catches up with Bannon, with the style of curiosity usually reserved for nature programs about dangerous animals. That is, Klayman’s camera mostly follows him around and watches from a safe distance. The filmmaker has remarkable access to the former Goldman Sachs investment banker and ex-Breitbart News Network executive. In 2017 as Klayman’s film opens, Bannon still appears a bit unwell. The left-handed, ultra-right-wing policy consultant, who chugs kombucha and Red Bull and insists on wearing two layers of collared shirts at a time, is glimpsed padding around the “Breitbart Embassy” in Washington, D.C. with his nephew/assistant, Sean Bannon, fending off phone calls and talking about himself.
The erstwhile movie producer (Battle for America; Clinton Cash) does most of his political work these days at Republican fundraisers in the U.S. and in the presence of far-right (some might say neo-Nazi) comrades in Europe. Bannon evidently wants to make it clear that he is in no way a white supremacist. He prefers the term “economic nationalist.”
And yet after resigning his White House post in the wake of 2017’s deadly “Unite the Right” mini-civil-war-in-the-streets in Charlottesville, VA, Bannon has palled around with such like-minded continental thinkers as pro-Brexit U.K. pol Nigel Farage; Hungarian strong man Prime Minister Viktor Orbán; and the leaders of AfD in Germany and the National Rally in France. His Euro sightseeing also took him to the ruins of the former Birkenau death camp in Poland –Bannon admires the “precision engineering” of its founders — and similar hot-button locales. “My shit in Auschwitz rocked,” he crows to no one in particular.
As for the Trump inner circle, Bannon currently seems to hold the position of the crazy uncle who needs a bath and likes to babble about the good old days. Some GOP candidates do indeed seek Bannon’s endorsement, but the Very Stable Genius has enough troubles of his own without the help of the man who wonders aloud, “What would Leni Riefenstahl do?” when it comes to messaging. Bannon is completely devoted to Trump but it’s not reciprocal. That’s the payoff for the enabler who considers the unsuccessful Muslim travel ban his greatest policy victory. Bannon shrugs it all off: “The West Wing has a bad karma to it.”
Entertaining as it is riding along in the black SUV listening to stories about Alabama election loser Roy Moore and what Bannon sees as “the New Axis — China, Iran, and Turkey,” the documentary strikes pay dirt in its footage of Bannon’s philosophical and financial backers. Where does the money come from to bankroll the Breitbart org, its lavish D.C. townhouse, and Bannon’s private-jet trips around the world? One funder introduced by the documentary is the enigmatic Guo Wengui, aka Miles Kwok, the Chinese real estate and communications tycoon (Guo Media) now seeking asylum in the U.S.
Klayman’s revealing doc screeches to a halt with the 2018 midterm election results. Bannon was selling but the voters generally weren’t buying it. His politics have ultimately not proved very popular. Perhaps in reaction to messy details such as national opinion polls and uppity progressive politicians, Bannon set up Citizens of the American Republic (COAR), a 501(c)4 political org “dedicated to fighting for American workers and American sovereignty.” Ever since the unfortunate Citizens United decision, (c)4 groups are allowed to take unlimited money from corporations without reporting it. Which means it’s none of our business. But that, of course, can change.
Director Klayman, a maker of socially conscious films (Take Your Pills; 11/8/16) and frequent contributor to the New York Times’ Op-Docs video shorts series, cues The Brink’s often-disturbing revelations to an eerie electronic music score by Ilan Isakov and Dan Teicher. That’s appropriate. The access to her subject is extremely generous considering the inflammatory nature of Bannon’s glib pronouncements. Take Steve Bannon as Alison Klayman finds him, and then put the matter to a vote at every opportunity. Unlike the man himself, that vote is important.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story speculated that former Goldman Sachs president John Thornton and Blackwater founder Erik Prince might have helped to fund Bannon’s efforts. Although both appear briefly in the documentary in meetings with Bannon, the film makes no such assertions. Thornton, a former colleague of Bannon’s, is in fact a long-time Democrat who serves as Emeritus Chair of the Board of the liberal-centrist Brookings Institution, is founding Chairman of the Nelson Mandela Trust, and is Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of historically black Morehouse College. An attorney for Thornton says he does not support and has not supported Bannon or his causes.