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Sundance Film Festival 2019: The Brink, The Wolf Hour

Steve Bannon in The Brink (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Learning that two documentaries on Steve Bannon would be dropping within half a year of each other didn’t bring to mind face-offs like Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano so much as a dire combination of Michael Apted’s Up series (an endless series of check-ins as Bannon ages in real time) and the pre-McQuarrie-era Mission: Impossible franchise, in which each installment would be a chance for a different documentarian to render their own personal Bannon. First came Errol Morris’s American Dharma (which I wrote about here), which has yet to receive distribution; Klayman’s film was picked up by Magnolia prior to its Sundance premiere. Morris’s premise was flawed at least two ways: one, the assumption that Bannon’s “economic nationalism” et al. pronouncements are key to understanding How We Got Here (they’re not); two, the assumption (recently articulated by a friend) that, given enough rope, Bannon would hang himself on camera. Regardless of venue, interlocutor or context, pretty much every political pronouncement Bannon makes lands somewhere on the spectrum from the merely stupid to the actively appalling; saying to his face, on camera, that it’s shameful, as Morris did, changes nothing. Bannon will never definitively hang himself on-camera, because he’s already hanging himself on camera every day (to own the libs).

Alison Klayman’s The Brink is better than Morris’s film, which was actively dull on top of being misguided, but whether this second installment of Bannon portraiture should exist at all is a different question. Rather than a one-on-one sit-down session, this is a verite ride-along (with occasional behind-camera pushback from Klayman) that begins in summer 2017, with Bannon freshly evicted from the White House, then skips ahead, via connective montages, to the summer and fall of 2018. There are thousands, if not millions, of middle-aged white men in the US who’ve worked in finance and would probably describe themselves as “students of history” (i.e., they read a lot of popular nonfiction history); what makes Bannon different aren’t his “ideas,” but his shrewdness in continually obtaining access to large amounts of money that allow him to maintain a road warrior lifestyle he clearly loves.

Bannon has constantly made himself available for coverage over the years; I’ve certainly read my fair share of profiles about him, but everything’s bled together, so I honestly can’t tell you which details here are breaking news. Brink is a portrait of a two-smartphones-and-Red Bull kind of guy who brings a manager’s mentality to everything. Bannon seems to love nothing more than scheduling endless meetings and conference calls—at one point, the Bannon Cinematic Universe collapses in on itself as he travels to Venice for the premiere of American Dharma, but doesn’t attend the screening, instead holding five days of meetings in his hotel room. It’s presumably this fondness for Meetings As Life that endeared Bannon and Trump to each other; the president is awfully fond of tweeting about scheduling, and sometimes even holding, a “great meeting” (more often capitalized “Meeting”), as a notable accomplishment in and of itself. Brink gives you a sense of Bannon’s day-to-day operations, which are mildly interesting, and if you are inclined to find such things funny, there is black comic value in scenes of, say, a Texan woman asking why Soros is still at large since he’s financing both antifa and “the caravan,” or of Bannon sitting across the table from Nigel Farage while the latter pretends to be a civilized human being and explains how Brexit not being immediately implemented is a tragedy for the UK.

Whether or not Bannon is sincere in his beliefs, or merely cynical in calibrating out his strongest grifting angle, is utterly irrelevant; the results are the same. If Bannon wants to repeatedly insist during a long interview with a Guardian reporter that he sincerely doesn’t believe, or even understand, how repeatedly invoking George Soros as the secret puppetmaster of the world is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, I can’t say that offends me much; it’s pretty much what I’d expect. (I’m far more offended by the spectacle, contained here, of Torontonians paying 40 to 100 $CAD a pop to watch Bannon debate “Populism,” playing the heel role to noted champion of truth and justice…David Frum.)

Morris’s film received some pushback in the form of claims that it was “dangerous,” which struck me as unnecessarily hyperbolic; only the already-lost could watch the film and find the siren song of Bannon’s rhetoric appealing. There is an ongoing debate about how, and why, to cover the alt-/far right (e.g.). What can be achieved for providing more coverage of an already quite public figure? I never became convinced that The Brink existed for any more compelling reason than that it could. This is a bit of a rush job, whose climax rehashes the midterm elections; maybe when we have 10 years of distance on this the footage will have value, but two months out I didn’t particularly need to revisit Nov. 7. Connective montages offer a condensed overview of the rise of vile figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s Marion Maréchal, but this context isn’t particularly illuminating or deep. Bannon’s short-term gamble was that he could help influence and steer the rise of right-wing European faux-populism, which appears to be doing perfectly well without him. Still, by film’s end, he’s succeeded in taking over a new initiative, financed to the tune of $100 million, which will allow him to keep globetrotting, scheduling meetings and blathering about how it’s not racist to be racist. I’m not unimpressed by his acumen; regardless of whether or not he failed in the public sphere, he’s going to keep making a living this way for the foreseeable future. I just hope I don’t have to keep watching him do it, because he definitely does not get more interesting or complex upon repeated exposure.

Editor-in-chief Scott Macaulay liked The Wolf Hour; I wasn’t into it, though don’t have much to note otherwise. It’s summer 1977 in the Bronx and novelist June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is in the middle of a full-blown agoraphobic breakdown. Her first novel, The Patriarch (!), was a bestseller, a novel doubling as an expose of her Vietnam War-profiteering father. Whether it’s because of being blamed for her dad’s subsequent death by heart attack by her family or other pressures, June can’t set foot outside her apartment, every inch of which has been color-graded in a Fincherian palette. An opening slow zoom into her space, taking in her meticulously grimy building wall (a highly artificial, kind of anti-Wes Anderson image) is reminiscent of Panic Room. Writer/director Alistair Banks Griffin and DP Khalid Mohtaseb ace the necessary component of finding new framings in the confined space to make sure claustrophobia doesn’t become visual boredom; technically, this is accomplished work, in ways that make this look like a movie about the ’70s, not one that could have plausibly emerged from that decade, and not for the better.

The Wolf Hour piles on an awful lot of thematic weight, from invocations of fascism and the Holocaust to, inevitably, the Twin Towers composited into the background; at one point, June finds renewed creative inspiration listening to an old interview where she declares “We English-speaking Americans are signatories to the genocide of the world.” I spent the whole movie waiting for the radio to announce “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” which didn’t quite happen; still, there aren’t many surprises. Visitors come and go, most extendedly best friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle), who tries to drag June outside, or at least convince her not to get rid of her first-edition copies of The Patriarch, whose presence in the apartment decidedly do not spark joy in June. There’s clearly a whole allegorical component that I missed, but I never got past surface-level irritation enough to want to think it through. There is a scene in which Watts is about to start masturbating while crying, as if daring us not to think of Mulholland Drive. This is sort of like Repulsion with zero thrills or sick laughs, a glum ’70s reconstruction rendered in a decidedly contemporary way that doesn’t illuminate then or now.

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