Film & TV

Sad, Sloppy, Self-Regarding Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The former Trump aide searches unsuccessfully for a sixth or seventh act.

Steve Bannon is talking about Birkenau. Auschwitz, you see, was a bit jury-rigged but, ah, Birkenau. Real pros did that one. “Oh my God, it’s precision engineering to the nth degree,” he says, “by Mercedes and Krupp and Hugo Boss. It is an institutionalized industrial compound for mass murder.” It’s the look in his eye that’s striking as he says these words. He doesn’t look sorrowful. There’s a glint of wonder there. He talks about all the boring bureaucracy, all the meetings and coffee cups, all the otherwise rational people involved in building Satan’s playground, how they all distanced themselves from “the moral horror of it.”

I don’t know in what context Bannon started musing along these lines, and I’m not sure I want to know. His Holocaust remarks come at the outset of The Brink, director Alison Klayman’s cinema-vérité look at Bannon’s rough ride since he was first ousted from President Trump’s White House and then separated from the Breitbart site and his major financial backers, the Mercer family. Later in the movie Bannon is inviting reporters over to his townhouse to watch what he calls a “propaganda” movie about Trumpism, and he lightheartedly asks, “What would Leni Riefenstahl do?” Bannon seems to think he offers some kind of roguish, politically incorrect charm, but he’s the only one who sees it. If you don’t want to be called far-right or to be accused of playing footsie with fascists, a handy rule of thumb is: Don’t compare yourself to the director of Triumph of the Will.

Bannon says his association with Trump, in whose 2016 campaign he served as CEO, taught him an important lesson: “There is no bad media.” Really? That’s the lesson of Trump? Trump’s approval rating has been mired in the low 40s for most of the last two years, sometimes lower than that, despite an economy going gangbusters and no major overseas crises. It’s because of Trump that the Republicans got wiped out in the House last November.

Such humiliating defeats never seem much to bother Bannon: Booted out of the White House after the Charlottesville debacle of August 2017, he says he was glad to leave. The atmosphere reminded him equally of a house of worship and “a Jersey strip club at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” an environment Bannon perhaps is more familiar with than most of us. Cut loose by Breitbart, Bannon became a wandering proselytizer of populist-nationalism, roaming across Europe to make common cause with unsavory-to-deplorable politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban. He is seen blaming subordinates for not being able to do much with his instructions, founding a MAGA outfit called Citizens of the American Republic, and reminding us, frequently, that he used to work at Goldman Sachs. Yes, and he used to not look like a preppy wino, too, but the past is gone. As he envisions uniting all of Europe’s nationalists under his prideful gaze, he seems to mistake himself for a member of the cast of 300: “This is called take out the sword and throw away the scabbard,” he says, or proclaims. If he ever beat his own chest, though, the sound produced would be much like a spoon hitting tapioca.

Because Stephen K. Bannon will talk to anyone who points a microphone or a camera his way, anyone who invites him to a bingo parlor or a diner or a Red Roof Inn to offer his wisdom, The Brink is not the only documentary about him coming our way this year. (Soon we’ll be seeing him, at least those few who still care, in American Dharma, from director Errol Morris.) His self-image is that of a master manipulator, but his amour propre blinds him to just how hated he is as he happily participates in every hit piece on him from here to Berlin. Director Klayman is less tendentious than most political documentarians, eschewing narration and not pushing viewers too hard (though the movie is fond of those heavy-handed Super Ominous Musical cues that seem to infect every lefty documentary these days). That relative restraint means the film will come across as insufficiently denunciatory to left-wingers.

As for right-wingers, does anyone still care? If Bannon is on The Brink of anything, it’s irrelevance, if he isn’t there already. It seems obvious that what Trump accomplished is due to Trump’s instincts, not the counsel of Bannon or Roger Stone or Paul Manafort or any other supposed expert or guru. Post-Trump, Bannon’s most notable achivement was the Hindenburg candidacy of Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore, whom Bannon backed to the ugly end. Bannon is seen urging a crowd that it’s no coincidence that Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post “did the hit” on Moore. But “I don’t like the paper that published this story” is not a rebuttal. Republicans who would prefer that the party not be represented by sex monsters ought to be cool to Bannon.

So what does Bannon do when he fails so spectacularly? He takes comfort in comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln. Klayman catches him picking up a book and reading a passage Lincoln wrote in 1862: “They wish to get rid of me and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them.” Why stop there, Steve? Much as you suffered the loss of, so was Jesus Christ crucified.