‘Frontline’: Steve Bannon Is Trump’s Grimmest Reaper

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Steve Bannon (Reuters/Win McNamee)

The new Frontline production Bannon’s War, airing Tuesday on PBS, takes up the conventional narrative about President Trump’s most insidious aide and gives it a good shakeup. There is a notion promoted by much of the news media — and via Saturday Night Live’s caricature of Bannon as a skull-faced Grim Reaper — that Bannon has peaked, and his influence on Trump’s thinking has waned. Frontline suggests something different: This political strategist’s quest to bend the Trump presidency to the desires of his extremist ideology has the president so thoroughly addicted that Bannon remains by Trump’s side as a Dr. Feelgood, always ready to pump the presidential veins with more vitriol and venality.

The documentary, directed by Michael Kirk, takes a brisk trot through Bannon’s career — first as a Goldman Sachs financier, then a Hollywood producer, a key editor of the repellent Breitbart News, and a political motivator for everyone from Sarah Palin to Trump. Some of Frontline’s emphases yield fresh observations. I hadn’t really gotten a load of The Undefeated, a Bannon produced and directed propaganda 2011 film about the dazzling virtues of Sarah Palin, designed to capitalize on what Bannon hoped would be a Palin run for the presidency in 2012. As glimpsed here, The Undefeated is a work of cynical fantasy, one of the first indications that what Bannon was seeking was an empty vessel decorated in bright peacock colors — first Palin, then Trump — into whom he could pour his poisonous mix of racist nationalism and apocalyptic paranoia. Once Palin fizzled into John McCain’s also-ran and Tina Fey’s most triumphant joke, Bannon focused on Trump.

Here is where Frontline comes to the fore. Michael Kirk is also the director of Frontline’s The Choice 2016, one of the most important films of last year. In choosing to make so prominent in that production former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault’s now famous  comment, “Every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump,” Kirk and Frontline were prescient in predicting and explaining the world we now live in. Bannon’s War is, in a way, a followup to The Choice 2016, because it shows some of the consequences of Trump’s own choices. By keeping Bannon at his side, the president continues to try to ram through executive orders and extreme policies, most of which face spirited disagreement from the majority of Americans — but, more crucially, supine acquiescence from the Republican Party.

Bannon’s War suggests that its subject will weather the hive-mind media notion that Bannon is out of favor with the president because the chief strategist threatens Trump’s ego as a political celebrity in his own right. This film asserts that Bannon remains what he began as: a self-described “disruptor” whose work is never done. Given that it’s coming from the folks who pretty much foresaw the Trump presidency, we’d do well to heed the warning that Bannon’s war continues.

Frontline: Bannon’s War airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on PBS.

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