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“You missed the beginning where everybody’s cussin’ about her,” the volunteer at the table outside the “leaders only” screening of the new Sarah Palin documentary, The Undefeated, told me last month, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s pretty harsh.”
That’s about the only harshness you’ll find in the The Undefeated, which opens this week in select cities but not New York, and was made by director Stephen K. Bannon without Sarah Palin’s direct participation but with her clear blessing. The film uses significant portions from the audiobook of her memoir Going Rogue as voiceover, and when it debuted in Pella, Iowa, in June, she and her husband, Todd, attended the festivities. The movie, which charts her career as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska, is less a documentary than a glowing two-hour infomercial for Sarah Palin, Presidential Candidate To-Be.
The purpose of The Undefeated, basically, is for people who currently work for Palin, or have in the past, to talk about her achievements and to bash her foes, who are cast as what one talking head calls “an uprising of hatred” against Palin. The former governor’s arguments with her detractors are described in the movie as “a spiritual battle.” She’s no longer just the folksy-aphorism-usin’ hockey mom of 2008—the film elevates her to nothing less than a fighter in a holy war, a lone holdout against the encroaching forces of darkness. “Are you ready to fight for your freedoms?” she is seen asking a roaring crowd last year. “OH YEAH!” shouted the guy behind me.
Bannon depicts Palin’s opponents as comic-book villains: sinister politicians in smoke-filled back rooms (Frank Murkowski, who lost to Palin in the 2002 gubernatorial primary); sexist, caddish news anchors (Chris Matthews); and bitter, unfulfilled feminists threatened by her flawless family life (referenced in generalization, but not by name), all united by their “hateful obsession” with Tearing Sarah Down. This cartoonish version of real life is paired with a just-as-caricatured view of Palin, who in this retelling is entirely without blemish, physical or political, and incapable of missteps. (Even the film’s title is a whitewashing—she was, in fact, The Defeated as John McCain’s running mate.)
While imparting no new insight, the film spends a numbing amount of time on every detail of Palin’s early career, but fades into fuzziness as it approaches the present day. One could argue, I suppose, that we all already know about present-day Palin, so better to learn about what kind of oil and gas commissioner she was in order to understand what kind of president she’ll make. But that’s not what’s driving Bannon here. Rather, The Undefeated is in love with the idea of Sarah Palin as an outsider and an upstart, so it doesn’t quite know how to talk about her growing fame and influence. This presents a curious situation (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s campaign, actually) in which a woman who has been in politics for close to 20 years, and who has served as a city councilor, mayor, governor, and vice-presidential candidate, is still described repeatedly as the “un-politician.”
By the film’s closing credits, we still have no clearer or more realistic picture of one of the most divisive, talked-about figures in national politics. In one stump speech shown near the end of The Undefeated, Palin exclaims brightly, “There’s nothing wrong in America a good ol’-fashioned election can’t fix!” That’s about as honest as this piece of propaganda.