Ever since Sarah Palin jumped onto the national political scene in 2008, we’ve been treated to a familiar cycle: her critics go overboard in attacking her and her defenders respond by deifying her. After nearly three years of this, one would hope that a nearly two-hour movie on her political career would attempt to move us past these stale debates. Sadly, the new film “The Undefeated,” decides to go the deification route.
Yesterday, I attended a screening of the new Palin film in Arlington, Va., which is slated to debut for general audiences on July 15th. Earlier today, producers announced a deal with AMC Theaters that will bring it to selected cities, and filmmaker Stephen Bannon said he expects it will be screened all over the country in July and August – which is rare for a documentary at a time of year when most screens are reserved for summer blockbusters.
Bannon, speaking at the screening, said he was originally approached about doing a Palin film that could be chopped up into YouTube clips. But he only agreed to do the film if he could finance it on his own and have total control over the final product – he didn’t even want to interview Palin. Yet he may as well have interviewed her, because much of the film is narrated using clips of Palin’s voice from the audio version of her book “Going Rogue,” as well as interviews with her former spokeswoman Meg Stapleton and allies in Alaska who Stapleton provided.
Essentially, the film is an attempt to restore Palin’s image to the one that existed for a short time after her rousing speech to the 2008 Republican National Convention -- that of a courageous hockey mom who fought corruption and took on the good ole’ boys network and the big oil companies in Alaska. It follows her rise as Wasilla mayor through her time as governor (the accomplishments in her first 18 months, Bannon argues, could be favorably compared to any 18 months of any governor in American history), then moves on to her vice presidential campaign and her post-election embrace of the Tea Party.
At every point in her career, Palin took on the establishment, critics pounced, and she proved them wrong, the film contends. The problem is that it portrays all critics of her as personally nasty or sexist, and at no point grapples with fair-minded criticism, if even to counter it. For instance, she’s credited with creating a boom in Wasilla through infrastructure projects, yet we don’t hear anything about the debt she left behind. When she quits her job as governor, the film adopts the Palin spin entirely – that she was deluged by frivolous ethics complaints that she couldn’t afford to fight, so she left office for the good of Alaska.
It’s one thing if Bannon wanted to make an unabashedly pro-Palin movie, but just from a pure filmmaking standpoint, it drags on far too long. The film is an assault on elites who treat the American people as stupid, yet the movie itself treats the audience as if we’re stupid, by bludgeoning us with the same points over and over again. We get it -- Palin has been under constant attack by the conservative and liberal establishment, because they see her as a threat.
A good editor could have reduced the film’s running time in half without losing anything, simply by removing duplicative interviews.
When I asked Bannon why, if he thought the key to the film was the untold story of her accomplishments as governor, he included so much about the Tea Party and her vice presidential campaign which we already know, he responded: “Because I needed a third act.”
More expansively, he said that the studio executives had wanted to cut the nuts and bolts section about her time as governor as it was. He also said that the Tea Party section represented a relatively small part of the film's running time.
Bannon said he sees the film as an attempt to “reintroduce” Palin to America (whether she actually decides to run for president, he said, he doesn't know). He insisted that he’s screened the film to Greenwich Village liberals who came away with a “begrudging admiration” for the way Palin took on the Republican establishment in Alaska. We’ll see how it turns out. But my guess is that the reception to the film will follow the familiar cycle. Her fans will tout it as a masterpiece; her enemies will use it as an excuse to renew over the top attacks on her. And in the crossfire, level-headed criticism of the movie will be dismissed as an unfair attack from a member of the establishment who fears her.