Alison Klayman, the award-winning filmmaker behind Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, has returned with new film The Brink, an observational documentary offering a one-of-a-kind look at one of the most significant and dangerous figures in world politics, Steve Bannon, in the run-up to the US midterms.
The real question is this: why would Bannon allow Klayman, a director who so clearly opposes his ideals, into his world so openly? He says in the film that Donald Trump has taught him there is ‘no such thing’ as bad publicity, so one can assume he would never have let it happen unless he believed it would benefit him in some way.
On the other hand, you might be wondering why Klayman would be interested in making the film in the first place. It’s not like Bannon needs any more attention, something with which he clearly thrives, so why give him precisely that? Well, fortunately for us, Klayman has outsmarted him here. It’s clear he underestimates her, but her calm, measured presence in the background of his life is precisely why the film proves to be anything but a positive thing for its main subject.
Bannon is such a showman, so openly and proudly who he is, that Klayman doesn’t need to sensationalize. Simply observing is enough. The Brink functions as a behind-closed-doors, bare-all look at just one controversial man. It’s designed to be an unfiltered look at who he is, with long cuts and lingering sequences working exceptionally well, as Klayman lets moments play out as long as they need to.
She only speaks to him a couple of times in the film. For the most part, you forget she’s even there. She’s not interested in narration, talking heads or fancy statistics and graphs. That’s not what she’s about and it’s not what the film needed. We just needed to be taken into his world and be shown how he worked, and that’s exactly what she’s given us. Her style also makes the film far more welcoming to those who find politics a little heavy-going, aided by the very watchable Bannon, who fills almost every frame. Admittedly, Bannon is charismatic, despite not being overly likeable. He could never have got to where he is were he not.
Klayman is clearly making a point here about Bannon and the risks he poses, but she’s able to do so without ever actually making it, which might be the most impressive thing about her film. Also, thanks to the frankly incredible access she’s been given, we’re able to see Bannon in his moments of weakness just as often as we see him in positions of strength. He tends to struggle when questioned, particularly appearing stressed when getting in the car following some fiery questioning from Susanna Reid, repeatedly admitting ‘she was tough’.
Bannon may believe there is no such thing as bad press, but his reluctance to address the film recently may prove otherwise. This is not something he can use to his benefit, nor was it ever designed to be. Klayman said herself that Bannon is the ‘least important audience member for the film’. Rather impressively, she has managed to keep control of the picture and ensure it never turned into something he could use in a different way. It’s an observational character study, not political propaganda. With someone like Bannon, this would’ve been a very tough line to draw, but she’s managed it.
People will already have strong opinions on Bannon going in, be it a huge amount of support or genuine hatred, and it’s hard to see the film changing anyone’s mind. The Brink isn’t showing you a version of someone that you didn’t expect, and its biggest crime is perhaps that it therefore lacks any real surprise. That being said, a lack of surprise does not necessarily mean an absence of shock, and the film has that in spades.
We’re offered a one-of-a-kind look at meetings and discussions of which we could’ve only previously imagined, and they are no less enraging than expected. Klayman simply allowing these people to do the talking while she watches gives the film such a sense of authenticity about it, and it’s exactly that that makes the film so discomforting. It’s both engaging and infuriating to watch these people discuss many significant topics with such ease and an apparent lack of interest in what their words could mean. However, as uncomfortable as a lot of this may be, it is nothing short of enlightening.
The Brink gives us an intimate look at a man who is essentially nothing more than a brilliant salesman, pitching his ideas to those who will listen, shunning those who will not, and being offered a frankly terrifying amount of money to do so. It’s a film that feels incredibly important at this moment in time, and one that will likely leave many viewers with more questions than answers, but this was never Klayman’s objective.
Instead, she is opening a door to a world that has an impact on all of us, and yet one that we never get to see. She is showing us how a very significant and dangerous figure works, how he manipulates and how he functions, and the result is a film that feels both fascinating and sickening. It’s simple but wonderfully effective, and one of the most accessible and significant political documentaries you could see right now.
In cinemas and on demand from 12th July.
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