Say what you like about the Trump administration’s supporting players — and people will — they do change with startling rapidity. Whether it’s Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus or the Mooch, it’s hard to remember who was who without a scorecard – or a documentary.
Alison Klayman’s “The Brink” returns the spotlight to Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief political advisor who in the not too distant past was featured on the cover of Time magazine as “The Great Manipulator” and very much seen, depending on your point of view on the president, as either the hero or the ogre of the moment.
Bannon was so on everyone’s lips he was also the focus of documentarian Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” which played on the fall festival circuit but has yet to make it to theatrical screens.
While that film was an extended interview, Klayman’s is cinéma vérité all the way, a classic fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows Bannon for about a year as he flies hither and yon on private jets, taking meetings, bolstering supporters and attempting to turn his brand of fervent nationalism into a global movement.
That “The Brink” (named after a quote from Abraham Lincoln about society being on the brink of destruction) works as well as it does is thanks to the determination of two filmmakers, not only director Klayman but also producer Marie Therese Guirgis.
It was Guirgis, a Bannon employee during the years his investment group owned the film distributor Wellspring, who had the initial connection to the man and was persistent enough to gain his cooperation.
And, obviously, it was Klayman who did the heavy lifting, often literally, as she served as her own cinematographer and sound person as well as directing a film that reminds us of who Bannon is and why he’s a person of interest.
Best known for “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a Sundance prize-winning look at the celebrated Chinese dissident, Klayman is intent not on taking obvious sides but rather on providing an intimate sense of what Bannon is like as a person from moment to moment and day to day.
The first thing to know is that, despite or maybe because of his rumpled clothes and all-around shaggy look, Bannon turns out to be possessed of considerable personal charm, a charismatic individual who can easily be imagined in the Hollywood he once was part of. (A clip from his documentary “Torchbearer,” about “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, is included.)
Not only is Bannon capable of defusing a hostile audience (as we see him doing in Toronto), but he also serves up the random self-deprecating comment on the order of “when people see I drink kombucha, the stock will drop 50%.”
On the other hand, Bannon can also be obtuse, witness his apparent genuine shock when he realized after a public appearance that you don’t have to be a left-wing zealot to dislike a president he considers to be “a historical figure, a transformative figure.”
“The Brink” begins in fall 2017, just a few months after Bannon’s abrupt departure from the White House, a place he says he was happy to be rid of because it gave off bad karma in addition to having “no glamour.”
What Bannon is up to on screen is both traveling to Republican fundraisers to energize the base and meeting with random conservative billionaires like Blackwater’s Erik Prince and Miles Kwok.
His remarks are about what you might expect, proclaiming that “the elites are comfortable managing our decline” and revealing a weakness for the phrase “a rose between two thorns” when placing women in the center of frequent grip-and-greet photos.
We also see Bannon in Europe, meeting a rogues’ gallery of right wingers from Italy, France and Britain as he attempts to start a global coalition he calls the Movement.
The most incendiary exchange Bannon has is with journalist Paul Lewis of the Guardian, who lays into him for what he calls dog whistle nod-and-wink language intended to incite anti-Semites, a charge Bannon has trouble deflecting.
“The Brink” really kicks into gear in its final segment, taking place in the weeks and days leading up to the 2018 midterms as Bannon gets increasingly short-tempered as he realizes that his party is going to lose the House.
“This town,” he says just after the election, “is going to be very different,” and in that sentiment at least he proved to be prophetic.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles