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The Brink is a fascinating documentary about a miserable human being

The Brink is a fascinating documentary about a miserable human being

Twenty years ago, Chris Smith released American Movie, a cult classic documentary about a filmmaker named Mark Borchardt, whose plan to make a movie that would fund another movie hit several hundred roadblocks. But Borchardt moved on, continuing to hit snags until well after the film is over. I think of Borchardt as a hero.

Alison Klayman's new documentary, The Brink could have been called American Movie 2. It's about Donald Trump's former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, fresh from either quitting or getting fired from the job he worked his whole life to secure, as he tries and fails to get momentum behind anything. Bannon sees himself as a mastermind, as Darth Vader, but Klayman makes it clear he's just thrashing around, barely in control of anything. Unlike Borchardt, he's able to make a movie, which he openly calls propaganda, but nobody likes it or gives it much thought. And that's a good thing, because his grand ambition is to get rid of immigrants.

Much will be made of The Brink's first scene, where Bannon marvels at the "precision engineering to the nth degree" he observed when visiting a German concentration camp. He speaks wistfully of how there were people in boardrooms who detached themselves enough from the evil they were committing to make everything run perfectly. Equally as telling, I think, is that he leads into the story by saying he was at the concentration camp to film a movie with a guy from Duck Dynasty. Bannon can't remember the name of his own movie. He keeps asking "What was it called?" well after the assistant has told him the name, Torchbearer, a couple times. He's so proud of this movie he directed. "Was it called Torchbearer or The Torchbearer?" he asks. The assistant has to tell him there's no "the" twice.

Klayman is documenting a person who 1) is fascinated by the banality of evil, 2) lacks the self-awareness to recognize praising Nazi efficiency in front of a camera crew isn't the best look and 3) can't remember the name of a movie he made three years earlier, even when another person is literally shouting it at him. Later in the movie, Steve Bannon will pitch his services to British nationalist Nigel Farage and he will mispronounce the word "zeitgeist."

The Brink's middle section is mostly about meetings like this, where Bannon travels to European countries and tries to get them revved up about their own nationalist movements. He meets with people eager to become or bolster their country's own Donald Trump, though most of these talks don't amount to much. Before his European tour, Bannon puts everything he has behind noted pedophile Roy Moore, who fails. And then Bannon returns to America in time for the 2018 mid-term elections and watches the Democrats take the House. Klayman does a fascinating job juxtaposing footage of a person who fancies himself a puppetmaster with footage of that same person watching everything fizzle out.

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The question movies like this always have to answer is "Does the existence of this thing give a platform to the toxic ideology it shows?" When a director just lets the subject babble on, the answer can be an unfortunate "yes." Though she's mostly a verite filmmaker standing in the corner of the room, Klayman does a strong enough job pushing back against Bannon, both through questions she asks directly and through choices in the editing room, that I don't think you could condemn her for spreading his ideology. Bannon will blame George Soros for using money to control the world or he'll go on about "globalists," and Klayman will both directly tell him he's using dog whistle phrases and, when Bannon laughs her off, show others telling him the same. She'll show him making the same two or three lousy jokes a dozen times (i.e., he'll be standing with another man and a woman will walk up asking for a picture, at which point Bannon will position her in the middle and say "let's get you over here, a rose between two thorns) and making the same talking points a couple dozen more.

He's so busy repeating himself, he doesn't get much of his ideology out. We know he orchestrated the Muslim ban, but good luck figuring out a concrete reason why. At one point during a fundraiser, a woman walks into the room and protests Bannon's ideas. She's escorted out and Bannon makes a joke about how he was only scared for a second because he thought she was one of his ex-wives. On an airplane, he chastises the guy taking the credit for Tump's wall idea, telling him "That's the problem with you, you think you and Trump are friends." The Brink is an important political documentary. It captures a racist fascist screwing up again and again, thinking he's the smartest person in the room and then finding out nobody cares about him. It's also a good, hard look at a guy with multiple ex-wives, who insists he doesn't have friendships. And if this is where it got him, putting all of his support behind a failing pedophile, you wonder why he's even bothered. At its core, this is still American Movie 2. This is still a movie about a fuck-up. This time he isn't even a likable fuck-up.

The Brink opens in Philly theaters today.

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