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06.05.11

Sarah Palin's Movie Makeover in The Undefeated

A forgotten Sarah Palin who worked with Democrats to pass landmark legislation emerges in the new documentary The Undefeated. Shushannah Walshe gets an early look and talks to director Stephen K. Bannon.

The Undefeated, a glowing, dramatic documentary about Sarah Palin’s history from the former Alaska governor’s point of view, is the latest step in Palin’s effort to reframe her image ahead of a potential presidential run. And it may succeed in bringing in conservatives who loved her in 2008 but have been turned off since.

The film’s director, Stephen K. Bannon, says he believes it will attract independents and liberals as well. “I think there is a huge audience out there for moderates and liberals that want to see this film,” he told The Daily Beast. “The American people are fair and decent, and I think they are willing to give this movie a shot and learn something they may not know about Gov. Palin.”

The Daily Beast got an early screening of The Undefeated, which offers an accurate look at just how much Palin was able to accomplish in her short tenure as governor of Alaska. The film goes into gritty detail about how Palin passed legislation that other governors had been working on for decades, including the initial legislation for a gas pipeline, oil tax reform that brought in billions for the state and its residents, and a push for Exxon Mobil to start drilling in an oil field it had been sitting on for decades. Many of the state’s lawmakers now think the oil tax reform legislation is a mistake, curbing oil exploration, but at the time of its passage, the bill was hailed as a boon in the 49th state.

Bannon, the 57-year-old filmmaker behind the Tea Party movie Generation Zero, was approached by SarahPAC treasurer Tim Crawford and adviser Rebecca Mansour after the 2010 midterm elections to make a series of videos about Palin. With her blessing and help facilitating, he instead decided to make a feature-length film about the former governor, putting up the money himself.

Bannon defended the omission of Troopergate, saying it is not a “central theme” of her tenure and that the potential abuse of power case has been covered in depth.

“It’s a fascinating story,” Bannon said. “It’s someone who’s one of the most well-known people in the world, but not a lot is really known about her. It was really the rise from obscurity to prominence. I thought was a terrific story, and no one has ever told it in film.”

Brought up in an Irish Catholic family of union workers and Reagan Democrats in Virginia, Bannon said he’s “always been pretty conservative.” When he’s not making documentaries, he’s the CEO of IMI Exchange, which trades “virtual currency” for the global videogame industry, a business run mostly in Asia that he co-owns with Goldman Sachs and Oak Ventures. Most of his friends are liberals, he said, and politics is now off the table when his extended family gets together at Christmas.

Bannon—who owns homes in Santa Monica and Laguna Beach and describes himself as part of a small group of “Hollywood cultural conservatives” that includes Andrew Breitbart, Gary Sinise, David Mamet, and Dennis Miller—funded the film with $1 million of his own money.

“We thought it was going to be a commercial film,” he said. “We thought people would be fascinated by this and we thought we would have a strong return on investments. We always had a vision, my partners and I, if we told the story, the real story of Gov. Palin that it would have a huge audience.”

The Undefeated opens with Palin family home video and then cuts to footage of Palin detractors Matt Damon, Rosie O’Donnell, and others describing why they can’t stand the former Alaska governor. It’s an effective and eye-catching start that grabs the viewer. The film also shows how Palin has stunned the establishment, from the Wasilla mayor she crushed to the Alaska GOP, by sweeping into the governor’s office and working with Democrats to get her legislation passed. It’s a Palin who has been largely forgotten since she was chosen as John McCain’s running mate.

The film colorfully draws clear lines, as Palin does herself, between the “good guys” and “bad guys.” When the Beltway Republican establishment does not defend her, Bannon uses video of a zebra being eaten by hungry lions. When Palin is trying to get elected in the wake of FBI raids and arrests of state legislators, the film shows smoky rooms with cigar-chomping men, with a voice-over of Palin’s voice from the audio version of Going Rogue. (Palin wasn’t interviewed directly for the film, but she has seen a rough cut and told the press who traveled with her last week on her bus tour that she was “blown away” by it.)

The stock video may be hokey, but Palin’s Alaskan supporters and former staffers do a much better job defending her record. Palin’s former spokeswoman, Meg Stapleton, joins her former attorney Tom van Flein, her Wasilla deputy mayor Judy Patrick, and oil and gas adviser Marty Rutherford, among others. All are passionate and mostly quite effective retelling the drama of those moments in the legislature and negotiations with the oil companies. It’s also an incredible reminder of Palin in Alaska before she became a household name.

The film mostly ignores social conservative issues to focus on Palin’s big wins with energy and fiscal issues, and it completely skips Troopergate. Bannon defended the omission, saying it is not a “central theme” of her tenure and that the potential abuse of power case had already been covered in depth.

In the film’s last third, though, it undergoes a serious and seemingly sudden change—one that mirrors the transformation Palin herself went through. The problem solver who worked with Democrats to get Alaskans their fair share becomes a right-wing firebrand who instead of being defended by passionate Alaskans has conservative agitators Mark Levin, Andrew Breitbart, and Tammy Bruce speaking for her. Palin supporters will love this change, but it’s quite jarring and will undoubtedly turn off non-Palin fans who may have been starting to see a different side of her earlier in the film.

Van Flein goes into detail about why Palin resigned her governorship after fighting so hard to get there in 2006. He is also effective, but if Palin does run in 2012, this move will be the hardest for her to explain, even with van Flein’s defense. After watching the hard-charging politician get so much done in record time, blaming her resignation on ethics complaints filed by Alaskans—as annoying and costly as they may have been for the Palin family—just isn’t believable. The Sarah Palin depicted in the film would keep fighting, but she didn’t. Stapleton, a passionate defender of her former boss in the film, gives an over-the-top account of how sad it was for Alaskans that Palin was forced to step down, another moment that stretches credulity.

The Undefeated is set to premiere at the end of June in the first caucus state of Iowa, and from there it will travel to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Bannon said he will announce a distribution deal soon that will back a commercial run.

The director said he doesn’t know whether Palin will run for president but that he would back her if she does throw her hat in the ring: “I certainly think she would add a tremendous voice in the Republican primary… I think it would be terrific.”

The final section of the documentary is introduced with the caption “From here, I can see November.” This hint is the latest of several Palin has been giving that she will indeed jump into the 2012 race. After clearly enjoying being back on the trail this week and being urged on by supporters, staffers, and now this film, it’s hard to see how The Undefeated doesn’t give Palin just one more reason she should enter the race.