Rightward ho!

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday April 2, 2019
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Right-wing guru Steve Bannon is the subject of "The Brink." Photo: Magnolia Pictures
Right-wing guru Steve Bannon is the subject of "The Brink." Photo: Magnolia Pictures

"The Brink" is Alison Klayman's scary but insidiously entertaining portrait of former Trump campaign architect Steve Bannon. The subject is planted in front of a screen in Breitbart's Washington, DC "Embassy," waiting for his nephew to prepare a slime-green health drink. Spooning out the chunky concoction, Bannon, then 64 and sporting a full head of steel-gray hair, launches the first in a string of self-deprecating jokes.

"Have you tasted this? When I took over the [2016 Trump presidential] campaign, I was 35 lbs. overweight. I looked like Java the Hut."

As "The Brink" opens in fall 2017, Bannon has climbed down from his Trump election-win high. Key to his strategy was Trump's "Muslim travel ban." But following violent protests in Virginia, Bannon leaves the Trump inner circle, boasting he's now "unchained" from political correctness, free to pursue long-term goals of "The Movement." This "Movement" is nothing less than a worldwide political and cultural realignment rallying right-wing forces, including anti-immigrant, sometimes anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ cadres behind violent street protests such as the French "Yellow Jackets" trashing Parisian tourist sites.

At first viewers don't know what either the filmmaker or the film's "star" has in mind. In the year we spend observing Bannon (through the 2018 midterm election), director Klayman has us chilling with an amusing dude who could as easily be preparing to host "Saturday Night Live" as plotting the reelection of Alabama Judge Roy Moore, facing accusations of sexual harassment. The defeat of Moore by liberal Democrat Doug Jones produces a Bannon sourpuss reaction that plays like a character-revealing arc.

What "The Brink" does best is deliver a close-up view as Bannon uses private jets and multiple screens to raise huge amounts of cash from older rich people in America, Italy, Germany, and Britain. In folksy anecdotes ranging from the engineering of the Nazi death camps to the philosophy behind the Muslim travel ban, Bannon confirms his unofficial title as "Trump's Brain." In a key moment, he discusses what he feels are the deadly mistakes of America's elites.

"The elites in this country are comfortable with managing our decline, they just are. I saw the impact of globalization, particularly coming out of Harvard. I saw that the goal of globalization was all about shipping jobs overseas, having no concerns about social equity."

Klayman had amazing access to Bannon's traveling circus, getting on film such gems as a young pregnant supporter's hope "that President Trump will sign my belly." It was harder for the filmmaker to find those moments where Bannon meets his match, such as an encounter with David Lewis, a young [UK] Guardian journalist who accuses him of "dog whistle anti-Semitism."

Bannon's recipe for success is his realization that AM radio stations could serve as a conveyor belt for right-wing platitudes. "The Left has never figured out how to do talk radio, but talk radio has been such a valuable aide to the Right." Another key moment comes when Bannon addresses a fundraiser at South Carolina's Citadel military academy. A female protestor challenges his thesis and is promptly hustled out of the audience by security guards.

"The Brink," opening Friday, is only the first stab at defining this garrulous right-wing guru. Later this year veteran docmaker Errol Morris (famous for winning the freedom of a wrongly convicted death-row inmate in 1988's "The Thin Blue Line") will release his own take on this unorthodox Harvard man.