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The Brink: A new documentary goes behind the scenes with Steve Bannon

Magnolia Pictures | Steve Bannon in THE BRINK, a Magnolia Pictures release.

A new fly-on-the-wall documentary about US President Donald Trump's disgraced adviser Steve Bannon reveals his grandiose aspirations and self-regard, as well as his limitations.

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To shoot "The Brink", an illuminating new documentary about former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, director Alison Klayman embedded herself with his entourage for a year beginning in October, 2017, and finishing just after the 2018 midterm elections.

During her year in the Bannon camp, Klayman watched him pound Red Bulls as he strategised in his DC townhouse, pose for pictures with adoring fans around the country and travel repeatedly to Europe in the hope of forming a continent-wide coalition of far-right parties that could dominate the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Klayman captured extraordinarily candid moments from Bannon, and the film colours in and rounds out the black-and-white one-dimensionality with which he has often been depicted in the media. Like anyone, Bannon is complex: He can be charming and still hold views that many find offensive, he can look both cultivated and uninformed, he can be opportunistic and at the same time seem to genuinely believe some of the conspiracy theories popular on the political right, Klayman told FRANCE 24.

At times, Bannon appears not to buy what he is peddling. At a Munk Debate with conservative commentator David Frum in Toronto, for example, he begins detailing the percentage of the vote with which several populist leaders won their elections. When he gets to Trump, Bannon says he won with “over 300 electoral votes". He pauses as the audience laughs, a smile playing at the corner of his lips.

What he does genuinely seem to believe is that America is at an inflection point in its history, a Fourth Turning, in the parlance of sociologist Talcott Parsons, a foundational moment in which national identity is redefined. Bannon's tendency to quote Abraham Lincoln suggests he sees himself or, at the very least, wants to, as an historical figure at the vanguard of an historical moment. Watching the film, one gets the sense that Bannon has his eye on his legacy more than on any specific electoral win.

The remarkable access to Bannon was procured by the film’s producer, Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked directly for him from 2003-2006, after his investment group bought the film distribution company she was employed by. When he emerged nearly a decade later as a Trump advisor, she sent him an angry email urging him to quit the campaign. As he became more visible and started being portrayed as an evil genius, she began thinking that she should do something positive with her relationship with him. One day it hit her: she could make a film that would “not only strip away the mythic media narrative that was so empowering to him but also allow us to better understand the larger political force of which he is a part", she said in a statement.

That larger political force is, of course, the nationalist movement that, in addition to having Trump as its mascot-in-chief, is growing in Europe. Bannon spends a lot of time on the Continent trying to push it, along with The Movement, a Brussels-based organisation he founded in 2017 to promote right-wing populism. While he devotes a lot of attention to granular details, expressing his utter dislike for a proposed logo, he seems less cognisant of political facts on the ground in Europe asking about immigrant birth rates at one point, for example and less concerned about actual policy. His focus was the 2019 European parliamentary elections and assuring that an axis of far-right parties would win enough seats to have a controlling bloc.

While in Europe, Bannon met with Nigel Farage from the UK and with members of far-right parties from Italy, Spain, Belgium and Sweden. But by far his biggest fans, or certainly those with which he had the most contact, were the representatives from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, namely spokesman Jérôme Rivière and Vice President Louis Aliot. Not only did Bannon meet with them in Europe, but they flew to Washington, DC to watch the mid-term election results come in with him.

With his lack of understanding of the nuances of the various European polities, Klayman said that he likely can’t give them useful strategic advice. His biggest asset for the National Rally was the financial expertise he developed during the years he spent as a banker. In mid-2018 the French government withheld $2.4 million dollars in subsidies from the National Rally, creating a financial crisis for the far-right party. In meetings that Klayman was not invited to attend, Bannon helped the group figure out how to shore up its finances and suggested places they could get loans. “A lot of countries' names were being mentioned, and none of them were European,” Klayman said.

But perhaps Bannon’s biggest contribution to the European far-right in general and the National Rally in particular, is his validation of them. He enables them to feel linked not only to Trump and Brexit but to an arguably ascendant global movement. The polling may not indicate that the right wing can win enough seats to control the European Parliament, but polls didn’t predict a Trump election win or Brexit either. Klayman said far-right parties are starting to feel: “It’s our time."

"Whether they get there," she added, "I don’t know.”

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