The film producer Marie Therese Guirgis first met Steve Bannon 15 years ago, when he became her boss at an independent film distribution company in New York. Guirgis found Bannon to be alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) charismatic, demanding, intelligent, and foul-tempered, and, though the company was shuttered a few years later, the two stayed in touch. When Bannon joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, Guirgis wrote him an impassioned email expressing what she calls “shock, anger, and disgust.”
When Bannon—soon to become Trump’s campaign chairman and, after the election, the White House chief strategist—actually replied to Guirgis’s email, it set in motion a new round of communiqués that ultimately resulted in The Brink, Guirgis’s and director Alison Klayman’s picaresque, fly-on-the-wall documentary that silently shadows the far-right Johnny Appleseed around the world as he attempts to assemble a kind of supergroup of hard-right political parties out of a ragtag group of nationalist leaders—think the Hollywood Vampires but instead of aging rockers they’re revanchist, hate-stoking neofascists.
Klayman began filming in the fall of 2017, just before Bannon, in the wake of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, was rechristened by Trump as “Sloppy Steve” who had been unceremoniously “dumped like a dog,” to quote Trump, from both the White House and his post as executive chairman of Breitbart News, the online dumpster bin of fringe-right conspiracy theories he’d led since 2012. (Among Bannon’s sins: throwing around words like “treasonous” to describe Donald Trump, Jr.’s secret meeting with a Russian lawyer.) Licking his wounds, we see Bannon in his Washington, D.C., bachelor pad/world headquarters (a.k.a. the former so-called Breitbart Embassy), pounding Red Bull and watching his manservant—sorry, that’s his nephew Sean, billed here as Bannon’s “assistant”—cook him his eggs for breakfast; we listen to him talk about wanting to lose 35 pounds so that people don’t call him “that gross-looking Jabba the Hutt drunk.” For the record, Bannon says that, despite doing “the Lord’s work” in the White House, he “hated every minute of it”—there’s “no glamour to the place at all.”
Which genus of Bannon emerges from this septic tank of self-reinvention? As any astute observer of opportunistic, atavistic, bottom-feeding, swamp-dwelling creatures already knows, this particular pulmonate reinvented himself as the pied piper of populism—a kind of global leader manqué for the crowd that reviles “globalists” (or simply uses the term with a wink and a nod—and as a stand-in for Jews—while denying it with their fingers crossed behind their backs).
And so begins the Bannon World Tour—a seemingly endless vacation where the sullen sultan of scruff bathes himself in glamour aboard private jets and beds down in five-star hotels in London and Rome and Venice and Prague and Budapest (and later, in more modest accommodations, in Buffalo and Las Vegas and Staten Island).
The first series of jaunts sees Bannon trying to herd the cats who are heading up Europe’s various extreme right-wing political parties into a kind of Justice League of jingoism. Just who comprises this clowder? Well, let’s start with a couple high-ranking people from France’s National Rally party—a party whose founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, referred to the Nazi occupation of France in World War II as “not particularly inhumane, even if there were a few blunders” and called the Nazi gas ovens in concentration camps a mere “point of detail.” (The National Rally party is also funded by a $12 million “loan” from the First Czech Russian Bank in Moscow, which is linked to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin—when asked why the party couldn’t have secured financing from French banks, its current president, Jean-Marie’s loving daughter Marine, naturally accused France’s banks of collusion with the country’s government. Any of this sound familiar?)
Who else do we see supping at Bannon’s table? People like Filip Dewinter, the leader of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party—itself a reconstituted version of an earlier party that was essentially outlawed in Belgium for being racist and xenophobic. And people like Kent Ekeroth who, as spokesperson for Sweden Democrats, another (yawn) far-right party, was captured on video arming himself with an aluminum pipe after trying to pick a fight with a comedian of Kurdish descent.
The second leg of Bannon’s great adventure sees him barnstorming across Republican strongholds of the United States, from banquet hall to banquet hall, as he tries to stoke incendiary rage among the party faithful on behalf of Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama then running for Jeff Sessions’s seat in the Senate: “This is called ‘take out the sword and throw away the scabbard,’ ” says Bannon of his all-in support for the candidate who’d been credibly accused by nine women of sexual assault or harassment, some when they were as young as 14. (Moore, of course, lost the election, then refused to concede as right-wing websites pushed conspiracy theories about voter fraud.)
What do all these people, groups, and political parties have in common? What motivates them? “Hatred is a motivator,” Bannon says. “Anger motivates.” At a private meeting in his D.C. townhouse with Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit former leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, the two put their heads together to dream big: “We’ll help knit together this populist movement across the world—we’re fire-breathers!” says Bannon, no doubt energized by whatever tidy morsel his nephew has whipped up in the kitchen behind him. “It’s a global revolt—it’s a zeitgeist!” (Bannon, for some reason, pronounces that last word zeitgeeest.)
On a more practical and obvious level, what joins these people and parties together from the various corners of the world is their puerile longing for a mythic past where everything was right and certain. It’s a kind of high school reunion mentality, a Bob Seger song writ large on the stage of fringe-racist international geopolitics, with everybody bonding over their hatred of immigrants. There’s even jockeying for credit: Sam Nunberg—who was hired, then fired, then rehired, then let go, then rehired again, fired again, rehired, and forced out of Trump’s presidential campaign before endorsing Ted Cruz and being sued by Trump for $10 million for allegedly leaking information to the New York Post—boasts here that “the wall was my idea—that’s a fact!” Nunberg goes on, breathlessly, about his time in Trump’s orbit: “Immigration was our signature issue—mass deportation and a wall. Why? It’s easy to understand.”
What isn’t so easy to understand is where Bannon got the money to fund his global anti-globalist campaign—his World Bank of moral bankruptcy. He’s too scared, of course, to fess up about it, even when directly asked, but speaks in reverent tones about (and with) two men: John Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs president who chairs the world’s largest gold-mining company and has a long history of investments in China, and Miles Kwok, a.k.a. Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire forced to flee China after allegations of bribery, kidnapping, money-laundering, fraud, and rape before settling in the United States and joining Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. (Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, we learn that Kwok has funded a Rule of Law Fund to the tune of $100 million. Who manages the fund? Bannon, of course.)
I know what you’re thinking: What’s not to love?
For starters, The Brink unpacks little of the above; in fact, it’s rather boring. Given its rather strident noninterventionist, fly-on-the-wall stance, we’re at the rallies where Bannon’s speaking; we’re in the room with him as he meets with all of the above; we hear snippets of their chatter and witness a rash of journalists dutifully taking in the whole sordid spectacle and saying little in response. But we learn nothing more about anything we don’t already know, about Bannon’s three ex-wives or the shadowy stories about his pre-Trump years living with no fixed address, or about his most recent ex-wife—who was under active investigation for smuggling drugs into a Miami jail and who apparently left their Florida home in a shambles, with the bathtub destroyed by acid and the house’s interior doors padlocked or removed entirely, with Sloppy Steve forced to forfeit his security deposit.
What we do see in The Brink, mostly, is a lot of movement: From city to city, country to country, hotel, motel, Holiday Inn, Bannon—and his nephew—like to go, go, go! Doors open and close, planes take off and land, meetings and rallies are held, reporters come and go, and Red Bull is sought after. Ensconced in the back seat of yet another black SUV en route to wherever is next on the tour, Bannon simply asks that age-old question of performers and seekers of attention everywhere: How’d I do? And then the dog barks, and the caravan moves on, to paraphrase the old Arabic proverb.
Of course, this bystander approach to filming isn’t a bug in Guirgis and Klayman’s film. Instead, it’s the feature; it’s what they sought out to do. Why? Judging from their remarks in the press notes to The Brink, they sought this observational rather than participatory approach to intentionally flatten Bannon’s affect, to avoid giving him the obstreperous oxygen that he seems to thrive on. (“Trump taught me a great lesson,” he says, early in the film: “There’s no bad media.”) But what, then, prevents their film from being simply a moving-image version of the reporters that The Brink takes pains to highlight as stenographers rather than probers of the truth?
There are exceptions to this stand-back approach: When Paul Lewis, a reporter from The Guardian, has the temerity to confront Bannon in Venice about the sort of far-right European political party leaders he’s been seeking out, meeting with, and trying to organize with, the “fire-breather” Bannon is suddenly a wet, limp noodle: “That was just a general dinner,” he mutters. When Lewis tells Bannon that another one has called Hitler “his uncle”? “Uh, he just came to the dinner,” Bannon says, meekly. When Lewis reminds Bannon—in front of Giorgia Meloni, the president of the Brothers of Italy party—that he had described Meloni’s party to him before they met as neofascist, the incendiary, bomb-throwing revolutionary nearly whispers back: “I don’t think I did.”
The Bannon we see on the night of the 2018 midterm elections, though, is a different beast entirely. Knowing full well that the wings of any pan-national movement of right-wing hate-meisters will be severely clipped if Democrats take the House of Representatives, giving them teeth for oversight and enforcement along with subpoena power, Bannon goes ballistic, yelling on the phone to pollster Pat Caddell, “Shut the fuck up! Stay focused! I don’t give a fuck about these national numbers!” To Sam Nunberg, the self-proclaimed visionary of Trump’s wall: “This is your fucking job! Engage your fucking brain!”
Of course, we all know how that election turned out: The country showed up.
As for this “fly-on-the-wall” approach to Steve Bannon and his not-so-excellent adventure? I prefer my flies off the wall, frankly—doing what flies do naturally: feasting on the fetid piles of Bannon’s zeitgeest.