Donald Trump’s former strategist, alt-right propagandist and all-round provocateur Steve Bannon comes under the spotlight of a smart, dynamic, behind-closed-doors documentary, as he attempts to turn his brand of far-right populism into a global movement.
Adroitly mixing fly-on-the-wall material with news archive, director Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) follows Bannon as he campaigns behind the scenes of the 2018 US mid-terms and casts his beady eye on the EU elections. In so doing, she offers a chilling glimpse into the reactionary forces that are seeking to exploit the discontented zeitgeist.
The film spans around a year, between autumn 2017 – shortly after Bannen’s ignominious departure from the White House in the aftermath of Charlottesville – to the midterms a year later. In what might be regarded as a selfless act of public service, Klayman embeds herself with the jet-setting “vanguard of global revolution” throughout that period, as he attends Republican rallies and fundraisers, gives press interviews, preens on his Breitbart radio station and hatches his plans with Republican senate hopefuls and European far-right politicians, including members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party and a certain Nigel Farage.
Bannen’s agenda in Europe is to knit together nationalist groups across the continent under the banner of ‘The Movement’. His clandestine meetings with seriously dubious characters – all proclaiming immigration as their chief battleground – give the film an air of conspiracy thriller with real world stakes.
Among these contacts, the warblingly sycophantic Farage lends his particular brand of buffoonish menace; though as their relationship progresses he will receive similar criticism from Bannon as the preening Raheem Kassan, founding editor of Breitbart London. “Nigel’s got the same problem. The Brit guys want to fuck off all the time. No-one wants to do any work.”
How Bannon himself keeps going is amazing. He’s a mess – overweight, his skin mottled, constantly guzzling Red Bulls like his life depended on it. Dare one say it, he’s grimly fascinating, even entertaining company – self-deprecating, ironic, gamely taking criticism on the chin (notably from British journalists and TV presenters). But how much of it is an act by this most media-savvy of operators is a question worth asking. The degree of access he allows Klayman would be regarded as folly by most, yet is clearly intended to impress and disarm, by a man whose ego seems to know no bounds.
Ultimately, though, his gamble for the cameras backfires, as the jokes wear thin, the charm fades, the chauvinism becomes excruciating, the hubris astounds (as his fortunes nosedive he equates himself to a beleaguered Abraham Lincoln), the company he keeps maintains a sour taste in the mouth and any semblance of substance in his world view evaporates; he actually admits to Farage that their movement is lacking ideas.
In the background, Klayman’s barrage of news reports reminds us of Bannon’s support of the controversial Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice whose 2017 senate campaign was tainted by sexual assault allegations (which he denied) and of the vehement street demonstrations against Bannon himself. On camera, he is constantly challenged as an anti-Semite.
Klayman rarely comments herself while filming, shrewdly allowing Bannon to dig his own hole. And as his plans falter (the wave of young, ethnic Democrat women storming the midterms is a wondrous breath of fresh air in this fetid environment), the overwhelming sense is of an emperor with no clothes. “I’m gonna get so crushed in this film,” he tells the camera. Well he is, but he only has himself to blame.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk