Note: I am neither assigning a star rating to The Undefeated, nor should this be considered a traditional review.
With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, it is nigh impossible to print the legend, but Stephen K. Bannon tries his best with The Undefeated, a fawning biography of former Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Whatever you may think of Palin—and, to be upfront, I’m skeptical of her politics, her personality, and her sincerity to be a public servant for the good of the public—this is a documentary that demands you at least have some knowledge and opinion of her. As a doubter of Palin, the movie does very little to change that opinion (In fact, in some ways, it sort of solidifies some of my reasons), but I don’t think that’s Bannon’s goal. This is for the loyal followers, who truly believe that she poses an “existential threat” to, not only her ideological detractors, but also to the political party to which she belongs.
Bannon, to his credit, never feigns objectivity. The idea for the movie was, according to the director’s own words at a Q&A that followed the screening I attended, suggested by Palin’s political action committee (though not, as far as I know, funded by it). It is told in Palin’s own words, through the use of the audiobook of her Going Rogue (At the same Q&A, Bannon said he did not want to interview his subject to avoid any “spin” of events, but the use of her own first-person account of her life seems the ultimate spin), and the words of those, appearing as talking torsos, who were involved in her administration in Juneau, who work for her, and who use language like her being an “existential threat” as a positive.
This is unfortunate. It suggests that Palin exists inside a vacuum; anyone who disagrees with her is outside of it, saying critical things of her for some unknown reason. It’s an odd method to present Palin, especially since the movie makes so much of how, when she was governor of the largest state in the Union, she worked with those of and not of her political party to find compromise. That Palin, apparently, is gone, and the last image we have of her in the movie is yelling to a crowd of supporters in Wisconsin. The theme of the speech: It’s us versus them. Ironically, the portrayal of Palin seems to firm up a major criticism of her that has come from all sides: There’s a distinct lack of specificity when it comes to policy, except in espousing platitudes about limited government.
The early political career of Palin began, she tells us, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 55 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. She didn’t think the company, the state, or the federal government did enough. The Palin of this account and her run to be mayor of her hometown of Wasilla seven year later is almost unrecognizable today. She speaks here of government working for the good of the people, of needing to develop infrastructure, and of spending money to bring in business. It works, too.
Things become trickier when she enters the state level. As chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (The movie leaves out a failed run for lieutenant governor), she brought ethics complaints against another member. The movie suggests she heroically resigned from this position, which had a six-figure salary, although it later states she was one of six who did the same. Of course, two years later, she ran for another six-figure-salaried position with much more power (She seems to have accomplished two and a half things while in this job before accepting the vice presidential nomination, and that’s from Bannon’s own account of her half term in office).
No matter what anyone says about Palin’s intelligence, she is clearly a clever and calculating career politician. The evidence is there, and yet it seems that everyone wants to avoid it. Her supporters, of course, oddly see her as an outsider, despite having almost two decades of experience as a politician; her detractors, of course, find it easier to harp on her numerous gaffes (none of which, to no one’s surprise, make it in here) instead of recognizing that she still has a decent number of stalwart advocates. It’s an incredibly successful cult of personality she’s made out of book tours, a reality TV show, and social networking exposure (Again, none of this is mentioned, which is really a shame, since there is something to be admired here, even if begrudgingly).
The criticism comes at the very top of the movie, with a montage of jokes at Palin’s expense playing over haunting and ominous music. It’s meant to be an attack of Hollywood and the “mainstream media,” but the worst of the material (e.g., death threats) has nothing to do with celebrities or pundits but with regular people posting to social networking sites. It’s dishonest, of course, but Bannon slips into this mode a few times, particularly with his use of stock and staged footage. Images of a pride of lions hunting and devouring a zebra are juxtaposed with people mentioning the rise of criticism against Palin after her vice presidential run (Someone, without a lick of evidence, suggests these attacks and the ethics charges against her came “from the top” in a conspiratorial tone). Angelic choirs extol the virtue of her financial reform, but Bannon veers into pure hysteria when a montage of Barack Obama is introduced with a nuclear explosion.
Subtlety is not Bannon’s game, and neither is telling a story. Even with a deliberately structured narrative, The Undefeated comes across as fractured. It is, of course, because we know a lot more about Palin than what’s presented here, whether Bannon likes it or not.