It’s tempting, and by no means inaccurate, to describe “The Undefeated,” documentarian Stephen K. Bannon’s cinematic mash note to Sarah Palin, as a very long version of one of those rah-rah biographical shorts usually screened at political conventions before a presidential or vice-presidential candidate’s acceptance speech. Slickly produced and blatantly manipulative, Bannon’s hagiographic tribute is a celebratory cavalcade of career highlights and glowing testimonials that doubtless will please Palin’s devoted followers, appall her fiercest critics — and, perhaps, occasionally surprise the undecided. Aggressive grassroots marketing could stoke modest B.O. action during carefully calibrated theatrical rollout starting July 15.
Kicking off with a montage of snarky mockery by Palin’s more outspoken detractors (including Matt Damon, Bill Maher and, oddly enough, John Cleese), “The Undefeated” spends the better part of two hours depicting Palin as a phenomenal individual wholly unworthy of such ill-informed scorn. In the gospel according to writer-director Bannon, Palin, a small-town gal reared in Wasilla, Alaska, turned to politics as a way of righting wrongs, unseating corrupt politicos and battling what she saw (especially in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster) as the pernicious influence of Big Oil in her state.
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Early on, Palin says by way of establishing her progressive bona fides that she was inspired by the populism of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — so much so, in fact, she kept a photo of Jimmy Stewart in her office while she served as governor of Alaska.
Anyone hoping for an inside look at Palin’s private life will be disappointed by “The Undefeated.” Pic fixates primarily on Palin’s rise from city council member to mayor of Wasilla (at a time not so long after the town got its very first traffic light) and then on her election as governor of Alaska and her selection as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential race. There’s scant info about her childhood years — the audience doesn’t learn about the preponderance of schoolteachers in her family until well after the 90-minute mark — and only a single, fleeting reference to persistent rumors (spread by, among others, right-wing blogger Andrew Sullivan) about an allegedly faked pregnancy.
Political junkies eager to know more about Palin’s vice-presidential campaign are similarly out of luck. “The Undefeated” gives the 2008 election only cursory treatment — maybe because she was, you know, defeated in that one — in conspicuous contrast with the pic’s exhaustive and exhausting account of her crusade as governor to get a great deal for Alaska during negotiations for a natural gas pipeline.
Borrowing a trick from “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” which used Robert Evans’ audiobook recording of his autobiography as a running commentary,” Bannon deploys Palin’s audiobook recording of her own “Going Rogue: An American Life” so that his subject can offer testimony and share anecdotes. (Palin reportedly declined to be interviewed on camera for the film.) Other accounts are provided during on-camera interviews with many of Palin’s confidants, political allies, and longtime admirers, though John McCain is conspicuously absent.
It should be noted that conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, a fervent Palin booster, does her no favors by angrily decrying the lack of “chivalry” demonstrated by Palin’s critics, inadvertently suggesting that, simply because she’s a woman, she should be treated more politely than a male politician. It’s hard to imagine Palin, depicted elsewhere here as gleefully pugnacious, making the same argument.
Faster than the speed of thought, “The Undefeated” is a history lesson designed for students with minimal attention spans. Bannon strives to give every scene an insistently propulsive pace, relying heavily on smash cuts, skittish pans and self-conscious switches between color and black-and-white. Helmer overhypes much of his archival footage and almost drowns out some of his interviewees with the sort of thunderous music one normally hears only in movies when astronauts are preparing to blow up meteors. The interviews are shot in a swervy, jerky manner that may be intended to come across as dynamic, but actually appear to indicate the videographer was barely suppressing nature’s call.
To be fair, the docu builds a plausible defense for Palin’s oft-mocked post-2008 decision to resign as governor of Alaska two years before the end of her term. And while Bannon indulges in laughably crude if not borderline-offensive imagery, including snarling dogs, to depict the ferocity of Palin’s political foes (particularly, but not exclusively, President Obama), he’s effective at conveying Palin’s undeniably charismatic appeal.
Ultimately, “The Undefeated” can be viewed as a chronicle of Palin’s self-invention as a popular yet polarizing public figure, one obviously aware that her greatest strength may be her carefully maintained image as a down-to-earth, shoot-from-the-hip maverick. In TV interviews and newscasts dating back to her early days in Wasilla, she sounds far less aggressively folksy — and drops far fewer G’s at the end of words — than she does today.
Pic leaves open the question of whether she’ll run for president in 2012. But it persuasively argues that, in any event, she’ll continue to be an influential and galvanizing force as a leader of the Tea Party movement. Don’t be surprised if you actually do see excerpts from this doc at some political convention in the not-so-distant future.