'I Was Chilled Inside': 'The Brink' Director Alison Klayman on Spending a Year With Steve Bannon

Partway through The Brink—a new fly-on-the wall documentary about alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon—the movie's subject jokes, "I'm gonna get so crushed in this film."

Bannon, 65, a former investment banker and Hollywood producer, burst onto the political scene when he took over Donald Trump's presidential campaign in August 2016.

Overweight, unshaven and sporting long unkempt hair, Bannon's dishevelled appearance masks a man credited as the intellectual and strategic driver behind Trump's movement. Achieving what many considered impossible, Bannon shepherded Trump to victory in November 2016. But his time at the top was short. He was fired from his position as Trump's chief strategist and left the White House ignominiously in August 2017.

Director Alison Klayman set out to follow what Bannon did next. The creator of documentaries that include Take Your Pills and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, was afforded extensive access to Bannon and his team as they embarked on the next stage of their grand project. The process gave her a unique—and at times chilling—perspective on one of the most divisive figures in modern American politics.

"I'm about one thing, I'm about winning," Bannon declared at one stage. Bannon's desire to organize and proselytize for the far-right movement was never in doubt. How effective he was, though, is certainly up for debate.

Bannon would have likely assumed that Klayman—a left-leaning granddaughter of Holocaust survivors—would probably not be among his fans. But producer Marie Therese Guirgis, a former colleague of Bannon's, was able to convince him to take part in the 13-month project.

Bannon's Global Revolt

While maintaining a network of media, business and political contacts in the U.S., Bannon has turned his hand to fomenting right-wing revolution in Europe. His nascent efforts focus on constructing what he calls "The Movement"—a far-right umbrella organization bringing together nationalist parties ahead of the European Parliament elections in May. "We're going to run the fucking tables on these guys," he said.

Klayman told Newsweek she found Bannon's global ambitions "pretty alarming." The firebrand described his brand of nationalism as "a global revolt, it's a zeitgeist. We're on the right side of history."

Bannon's interactions with representatives of various European political parties and politicians, ranging from government representatives in Italy to a fringe right-wing party member from Sweden, suggest a significant—if still small—European network.

But for all his talk of "global revolution" alongside "economic nationalism," Klayman believes Bannon's vision "is empty." His project has struggled to overcome the contradiction of a global cooperative composed of nationalist, anti-globalist parties. He promised "war rooms" with polling data and analytics flying between nationalist parties continent-wide, but according to Klayman, none of this came to pass.

Countless profiles of Bannon have painted him as the brains behind Trump and the intellectual engine of the modern American alt-right. He promotes himself as a devotee of politics and a great man of history—a revolutionary disruptor "doing the Lord's work," as he put it.

Klayman places Bannon in a far less exalted light. She described him as a surprisingly self-aware man, adept at using self-deprecating humor to disarm those around him. "The thing that kept surprising me though, was how he both had that trait and also somehow often exhibited a total lack of self-awareness," she continued. Many of these blind spots, Klayman said, were "tied to vanity and that sense of himself as a great figure of historical importance.

"I think he is someone of a lot of dichotomies or contradictions," she added.

Alison Klayman The Brink Steve Bannon
Director Alison Klayman created The Brink by following Steve Bannon and his team around the U.S. and Europe for more than a year. Magnolia Pictures

Bannon as a Genius

The director suggested there is "a lot of cynicism in what he's doing, and a lot of emptiness when it comes to what I think this year has really been about—which is trying to wrap his message in this false clothing of economic nationalism." The theory "is not really about making citizens' lives better," she said. "I think it's about winning elections by promising you're going to build walls and keep people out.

"While he's smart, I don't know if the idea that he is a brilliant strategist with a crack team is really what you see there," Klayman reflected. She suggested Bannon and his allies "don't have to be evil geniuses. They can also be haphazardly ambling their way through these things or doing it because of opportunism."

At one point in the film, Bannon declared, "Hate is a motivator, anger is a motivator." He was regularly challenged on his use of inflammatory rhetoric and dog-whistle racism throughout.

Questions about alleged anti-Semitism are particularly pointed. His constant criticism of billionaire George Soros and liberal use of the term "globalist" as a put down, for example, have been flagged as problematic by many observers.

Bannon spoke with Klayman about his time visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp while producing a film. The director recalled a detached Bannon as he "ambles his way into the banality of evil," marveling at the efficiency and normalization of the genocide for those who were involved. Praising his subsequent production, Bannon tells Klayman, "My shit in Auschwitz rocked."

The exchange left Klayman stunned. "I was chilled inside," she recalled.

Bannon stubbornly denies he is using dog-whistle terminology. He also claims his economic nationalism—and Trump's MAGA ideology—includes all those who want to be a part of it, regardless of race, gender or religion.

But Klayman isn't buying it. "He is an adult, he is smart enough to know [what he is doing]. I watched him be told many times. I told him. And I think it's totally disingenuous and it's irresponsible, I don't think there is any reason to let him off the hook for that.

"He just doesn't see himself as racist, but he is really worried about the changing character of Europe and America. To me, that's a white nationalist vision of these countries."

The GOP Is Bannon

In the U.S., Bannon maintains a solid fan base keen to hear him extol the virtues of his vague nationalist agenda. The Brink shows conservative devotees lining up to shake his hand and have photos taken during his national tour to whip up the MAGA base for the midterm elections.

He might be out of the White House—where he says he never enjoyed working anyway—but Klayman warns it would be wrong to dismiss his significance. "I don't think that Bannon is a fringe element of the Republican Party," she explained. "He is the Republican Party right now, just like Trump is."

She dismissed the idea that Bannon was running an anti-establishment insurgency within the GOP. "He is on the phone with [senior Republican senator from South Carolina] Lindsey Graham, he would be on the phone with [former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions when he was in the Cabinet," she said. "I would urge Americans and Democrats to give up the ghost of the idea that there is any difference between any Republicans right now. The party is Bannon."

His economic nationalism message may be aimed at working- and middle-class Americans, but this doesn't stop him from hobnobbing with the super wealthy and engaging in their corporate interests. "For all of Bannon's saber-rattling about globalists, they are clearly not threatened by him," Klayman said. "That is who he is spending his time with.

"He was in the White House, but he didn't do anything that stopped tax cuts for the super rich and he is very pro-deregulation." The director said she hopes observers "can continue to poke holes through this idea that he is a populist or for improving the lives of citizens who are hurting economically, because I think that is not his agenda in real life."

Looking back, Klayman said her time with Bannon taught her that dismissing his views was not enough. "He and this whole side of things are not going to beat themselves. It's important to see them for what they are, and not build them into boogeymen or devils or monsters.

"They need to be countered, and not expected to just fail on their own," Klayman added. "I think that building a wall doesn't make people's lives better or get them health care or increase their wages. I don't think giving corporations zero regulations means we're all going to have added value manufacturing jobs coming back to America and people's lives are going to be better.

"They have to be beaten at the ballot box. There's very low turnout in these elections, and they capitalize on that through their messaging. They need to be opposed, not ignored." Whether strong enough opposition materializes remains to be seen, but the resounding Democratic victory in the 2018 midterm elections gave a huge boost to progressives.

But Bannon is up for the fight. "It's a global revolution, and I'm very lucky to be in the vanguard," he says, as The Brink concludes. "It's something worthy of dedicating your life to."

Despite his fear of getting "crushed" in Klayman's film, Bannon is an activist who thrives on conflict. This divisive era of global politics offers him a platform and an opportunity to spread his message, and he shows no sign of stopping.

Steve Bannon the brink Alison Klayman
This photo, taken from The Brink, shows Steve Bannon in Venice, Italy. Bannon has been traveling across Europe in a bid to create a network of nationalist parties. Magnolia Pictures

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