Alison Klayman’s The Brink starts with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon talking about Nazis. But he’s not praising Nazis, as one might expect. He’s talking about the horrific paradox that Nazis were regular people who didn’t realize they were monsters. By day, they made plans for brutally efficient murder camps; by night, they went to parties and had dinner with their families.
Of course, this is a sly way to open a documentary on Steve Bannon, because in some ways his own analogy applies to him. No, Steve Bannon isn’t an actual Nazi, but he is certainly spreading a vile brand of far-right “populism” around the globe.
Oh, and here’s the other paradox: Bannon also happens to be a pretty charming guy.
As I watched the documentary, which follows Bannon after Trump cut ties with him in the aftermath of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, I found his charm positively disarming. He’s self-deprecating and affable; he has a winking, “c’mon, admit it—you’re having the time of your life” style of discourse that lures audiences into a kind of secret partnership with him. “It’s not that serious, it’s politics—and it’s fun,” seems to be his mantra, which is pretty damn cynical when you consider that what he’s advocating for is so dangerous.
And here’s something that will annoy you to no end (it certainly annoyed me): After he was fired by Trump and given the boot by Breitbart, the far-right website he edited, he didn’t miss a beat. He kept giving keynote speeches and jetting around the world in private planes, huddling with world leaders, and doing meet and greets with adoring fans.
Indeed, at one point in the film, he flies to Venice to promote yet another documentary about him, Errol Morris’s American Dharma, but doesn’t attend the film festival at which the film is premiering. Instead, he holes up in his posh hotel room, meeting with white nationalists and making plans to start a global anti-immigration movement.
Klayman humanizes Bannon—with his big belly (he swears he’s trying to lose it), pock-marked face, constant supply of Red Bulls, and unkempt appearance, it’s not that difficult. But she is also very clear-eyed about who he really is. There’s a telling moment late in the film where Bannon is talking to a reporter for The Guardian who accuses him of using anti-Semitic dog whistles when he describes George Soros as leading a globalist conspiracy.
“You don’t really think that’s anti-Semitic!” cracks Bannon, performatively shocked.
“Yes, I do,” says the reporter.
“C’mon, you don’t really,” Bannon tries again, but the reporter stands firm. In fact, he says, he’s offended that Bannon is joking about a subject so serious. He’s one of the first in the film who is not swayed by Bannon’s back-slapping bonhomie and it’s both cathartic and clarifying.
The film ends right after the 2018 midterms, when a diverse group of Democratic congresspeople—many women of color—have won their districts. Bannon, who consulted for a few of the losing Republicans, is dismayed. It’s a blow for him and the movement he’s trying to lead—and in that sense a relatively optimistic note on which to end an otherwise depressing film. But if we’ve been paying close enough attention, we know the good vibes are temporary. There’s no kicking Bannon out of polite society because he’s so damn good at negotiating it. The moral of the film might very well be this: Beware of affable nationalists in rumpled shirts.
The Brink opens this Friday at the Charles Theatre