A documentarian could hardly ask for a better subject than Sarah Palin. Love her or hate her, the former governor of Alaska has managed to remain in the public spotlight thanks to her captivating (and polarizing) persona — a self-appointed mama grizzly who positions herself as so outside the political system that she can host a reality-television show and somehow get away with it.
Ideally, a documentary about Palin’s swift rise to national prominence would investigate both her notable triumphs and numerous gaffes. But considering The Undefeated‘s title, no one is going to approach it expecting a balanced account of Palin’s career. I checked it out Sunday night at a multiplex in Orange, Calif., one of 10 theaters it played in last weekend and the closest one to Los Angeles. (The film expands to 14 locations this weekend.) About 30 moviegoers joined me, filling up maybe a fifth of the auditorium. And they dug what they saw, showering the movie with applause at its conclusion.
As for my thoughts, let me begin by saying that the film’s staunch one-sidedness, while unfortunate, isn’t a major flaw in-and-of itself. Although The Undefeated is essentially a two-hour love fest for Palin, director and writer Stephen K. Bannon (In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed) has every artistic right to tell this woman’s story with the reverence he believes she deserves. When it comes to crafting an engrossing and coherent narrative, however, The Undefeated might as well resign.
The movie commences with a montage of attacks against Palin from the media and such Hollywood figures as Matt Damon and Bill Maher. It’s one thing to point out that Palin has often been viciously ridiculed, but Bannon eschews subtlety here in favor of enraged intensity. With the conviction of a fuming Howard Beale, Bannon slices and dices his footage like a heavy-metal music video. The result is exhausting, and it soon becomes apparent that the entire movie will be handled in a similar manner. David Cebert’s incessant score ominously broods when “corrupt politicians” or “elitist liberals” invade the screen, only to switch to an angelic female singer when Palin delivers a speech.
After cementing Palin’s victimhood, The Undefeated travels back to the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which Palin claims planted the seed for her political aspirations. From there, Bannon traces Palin’s ascent from small-town mayor to Alaska’s youngest and first female governor. This section of the film has the most to offer, as it’s easy to forget that the first half of Palin’s governorship was marked by strong approval ratings and some significant legislative victories.
Bannon interviews an assortment of Palin’s former colleagues and advisers, who portray the woman as a bipartisan go-getter unafraid to confront Big Oil. (Palin, who wasn’t interviewed for the film, occasionally chimes in via excerpts from her audio book Going Rogue: An American Life.) The movie focuses on such achievements as the governor’s role in passing the ACES (Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share) program, which — earmuffs, Tea Party Nation — raised taxes on oil companies and redistributed the wealth to the state’s residents.
But as The Undefeated progresses, Bannon increasingly relies on hyperbolic visual metaphors. Clips of the media criticizing Palin are juxtaposed with footage of lions preying on a zebra, and the mere mention of unethical politicians is followed by a shot of men cackling while puffing their cigars. The technique bears some resemblance to Michael Moore’s filmmaking style, but Moore finds humor in the way he intertwines stock footage with pop-culture references and sensationalized skits. Bannon, on the other hand, is more concerned about hammering out his points through sheer repetition. He believes government is wasteful, and he’s got three shots of money swirling down a toilet to prove it.
The rest of the documentary deals with Palin’s transition from Alaskan success story to national celebrity, with conservative bigwigs like Mark Levin and Andrew Breitbart adding their voices to the choir. A considerable chunk of time is spent revisiting Palin’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, with Bannon relying on low-grade digital video that wouldn’t pass muster on YouTube. Curiously, Bannon skips the majority of the election campaign — John McCain is barely mentioned — and moves straight into Palin’s return to Alaska, her subsequent resignation, and her newfound status as a Tea Party luminary.
In regard to Palin stepping down from office, Bannon posits that her decision was solely the result of being bombarded by ethics investigations, which allegedly made it impossible for her to concentrate on governing Alaska. But the film, not surprisingly, fails to mention that Palin’s resignation also opened the door to such financially lucrative opportunities as her TLC program Sarah Palin’s Alaska and her paid contributions to Fox News.
By the time we reach The Undefeated‘s coda, which practically ordains Palin as the second coming of Ronald Reagan, the movie has become nothing more than a gaudy campaign ad to rally the hockey mom’s supporters. That’s a shame, for Palin deserves a documentary that thoughtfully considers her impact on political discourse. For now, we’re left with this hyperventilating dog of a film — one that’s willing to do whatever it takes to please its master.