07.15.11

The Bizarre Palin Documentary

‘The Undefeated,’ a new documentary about Sarah Palin that pays glowing tribute to the GOP pol, hits red-state theaters today. Marlow Stern reviews the film and talks with director Stephen K. Bannon about its omissions, Michele Bachmann, 2012, and the filmmaking bomb he’ll drop before the Iowa caucuses.

With the exception of her recent confession to NEWSWEEK, Sarah Palin has remained coy about her 2012 plans. A new fawning documentary, however, hopes to lure the Mama Grizzly out of campaign hibernation.

Stephen K. Bannon’s film, The Undefeated, opens with a dizzying barrage of Palin insults by celebrities, ranging from Matt Damon (“a really bad Disney movie”) and Bill Maher (“dumb twat”) to, strangely enough, John Cleese. The aural and visual assault has the cumulative effect of an aerial blast from a high-powered rifle—and is just as subtle—to establish that the former governor of Alaska has been a constant magnet for trivial ad hominem attacks by what she calls the “lamestream media.” “She’s presented as a bimbo and as a Christian ideologue, and there’s nothing that could be further from the facts,” said Bannon, in an interview with THE DAILY BEAST. “She has tremendous applied intelligence, accomplished great things that were quite complicated, and did it in a very smart and savvy way.”

We are then transported to scenic Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez oil spill motivated Palin, then a married mother helping her husband on his commercial fishing vessel, to, as she says, “Work for the ordinary, hard-working people, like everyone that was part of my ordinary, hard-working world.” Here, the state of Alaska is painted as a sort of utopia where people are treated “much, much richer” than “the lower 48,” according to Palin (which wasn’t exactly the impression I got after seeing Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia). And, in a series of gradually more shocking and overt symbolic images, Bannon goes into Terrence Malick mode, showing repeated loops of plants sprouting up from the ground to represent the seeds of Palin’s raison d'etre, namely: battling corruption, fighting Big Oil, and reinvigorating the commercial economy of Alaska.

The Undefeated cleverly uses Palin’s audiobook recording of her autobiography, Going Rogue: An American Life, as voice-over narration, and never consulted Palin to be involved in the documentary, instead opting to place viewers “in the middle of the whirlwind,” as Bannon puts it. In Palin’s absence, a string of Palin acolytes sing her praises, including her former spokesman, Meghan Stapleton, various Palin advisers, and even her attorney. Aside from the initial onslaught, any moderate and liberal viewpoints are noticeably absent. “When Michael Moore made Fahrenheit 9/11, is the criticism of him that he didn’t include conservative voices?” asked Bannon. “It’s not that I’m not trying to add a balance, my question is: give me what’s not accurate? Is it incredibly flattering? The answer is yes.” He added, “We screened it in Phoenix, and [Palin] literally got up and said, ‘It blew me away. I loved it.’ No comments. No changes.”

This perky, small-town girl soon becomes mayor of Wasilla, where her emphasis on improving infrastructure and fiscal responsibility helped attract Walmarts and Home Depots to the town, leading to rapid job growth and a boost in the economy, all the while slashing property taxes nearly 75 percent, and coolly brushing off the tasteless jabs of her Wasilla mayoral challenger, John Stein, who compared Palin to a “Spice Girl.” About 35 minutes is then dedicated to her appointment to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where Palin goes into Erin Brockovich mode—crossing party lines to file ethics complaints against Randy Ruedrich, then a fellow commission member and high-ranking official in the Alaska GOP, and she eventually resigns from the commission in protest of Ruedrich’s alleged corrupt activities. 

“She’s not in the political, cultural, or social elite of Alaska,” said Bannon. “She’s out of the loop, and as obscure as any American walking into a Walmart. It’s interesting how anti-establishment she is. She’s a true populist, and I think that’s why she’s feared so much.”

In a series of gradually more shocking and overt symbolic images, Bannon goes into Terrence Malick mode.

Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs trader under Hank Paulson and now film documentarian of the Tea Party movement, financed the $1 million film himself through his conservative-oriented production company Victory Film Group. He then struck an exclusive deal with a special unit of AMC Theaters that will release The Undefeated in 10 theaters in 10 Tea Party cities, and if it works, there will be a national rollout. And although he worked at Goldman and went to Harvard Business School, Bannon considers himself blue collar at heart. “My grandfather never went past the third grade, and my father’s a high-school graduate who eventually rose to a midlevel manager at the phone company after many years,” he said. “I was a naval officer, and my daughter is serving as an officer with the 101st Airborne Division. I’ve had the chance at Goldman to work with some smart people and earn some money, but I have a very strong populist background.”

Palin, meanwhile, rises to become Alaska’s first female governor, and, at 42, the youngest in state history. She places a picture of her favorite film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in her governor’s office, and continues her platform of clean government, passing a bipartisan ethics-reform bill, and going toe to toe with the Republican establishment on a number of issues. Again, Palin’s controversial incidents in and out of office—Troopergate, and later, her “blood libel” statement and public demand of Obama’s birth certificate, are omitted entirely. “Look dude, Troopergate has been talked about and kind of dismissed,” said Bannon. “In a two-hour film, there’s so much meat you need to get to. Troopergate is such a non-event. I just think it’s part of the media’s false narrative.”

When Palin is selected as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, and the small-town girl is besieged on all sides, the film loses its grip entirely. In a classic film-propaganda tactic, personal attacks on Palin by media pundits correspond with shocking videos of avalanches, packs of lions feeding on zebras, people being buried alive in sand on the beach, and medieval knights with arrows in their backs. At times, the viewer feels like he or she is playing out the iconic scene in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where criminal Alex DeLarge is strapped to a chair, eyes spread wide, and subjected to a series of violent images as a brainwashing technique. “I had to cut some of the profanity and violent images to get it from an R to a PG-13,” confesses Bannon. The failed campaign is largely glossed over, and her infamous Katie Couric interview isn’t included. Conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart then makes a cameo, decrying the lack of “chivalry” Palin critics displayed, and labeling the Republican establishment (namely, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell) “eunuchs” for not sticking up for her.

The film then goes on two tangents—positing Palin as a populist leader/outsider à la Ronald Reagan, and crowning her as the de facto founding mother of the revolutionary Tea Party movement in America—also chronicled by Bannon in the documentaries Generation Zero and Fire From the Heartland, the latter of which devoted a great deal of time to the rise of Michele Bachmann. When asked about the 2012 presidential election, Bannon said he believes that Bachmann and Palin can coexist as “two totally different candidates”—before hinting that he himself has something special in store: “I’ve got something that I’m working on that I think is going to be even more controversial than this film,” he said. “If everything goes according to plan, I intend to drop this exactly 30 days before the Iowa caucus. It’s definitely timed for 2012.” He pauses, before adding, “There are forces brewing right beneath the surface, that I try to show in these films, that are going to have a tectonic plate shift in the culture of American politics. I think the paradigm is shifting, and it’s going to shift dramatically.”