Sarah Palin's 'The Undefeated': Bad Propaganda, Worse Filmmaking

Whatever you think of her, Palin deserves a better documentary than this

levin_palin the undefeated 615.jpg

Victory Film Group

“Like a marine, she runs toward the danger,” radio host Tammy Bruce proclaims of Sarah Palin in one of the less hyperbolic moments of The Undefeated, the new documentary about the Wasilla, Alaska firebrand from conservative filmmaker Stephen Bannon. Framing its subject as a Christ-like savior of an America that’s lost its fiscal and spiritual way, the film, which gets its national release today, makes no pretense of being anything more than a full-length commercial endorsement of her character and accomplishments.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even now, almost three years after Palin’s ballyhooed Republican National Convention national-stage debut gave way to a swell of intense media criticism, she’s an extraordinary force in American politics and reportedly debating a 2012 presidential run. No matter where you stand politically, it’s impossible to deny Palin’s significance. In The Undefeated, Bannon gives needed voice to the enthusiasm of the Palinistas that have propelled her to prominent heights.

The substance of Palin's story is lost, having fallen victim to a visual avalanche.

If only he were a better filmmaker. To his credit, Bannon understands that propaganda is meant to beat you over the proverbial head in some form or another. It’s the essence of this oldest of storytelling forms, which dates back to the start of recorded history. But Michael Moore and the other masters of its cinematic manifestation get that the best way to sell an audience on a particular point of view is to persuasively make the case for it through selective editing and other subtle techniques. Bannon, however, takes the opposite approach.

Underlining and bolding his talking points with earsplitting soundtrack flourishes, aggressive montage, and an overall state of high anxiety, the filmmaker creates an exhausting, repetitive journey into Palinland. This sort of town-crier tactic—"Wake up America, we’re going to hell," is the general attitude—is consistent with the message promulgated by Bannon’s heroine. On some level, many Americans of all political stripes agree with it. But when that notion is seeped so resolutely into the core of a movie, it makes for a headache-inducing experience.

Imbued with an apparently low opinion of his audience’s ability to infer things, Bannon lays everything out in the plainest possible terms. A discussion of wasteful spending is peppered with an intercut image of a dollar bill burning up. An angry electorate is transformed into bickering, preening stock extras, seemingly drawn from the world’s worst fashion catalogue. The movie employs jump cuts with such urgency—transitioning from the empty pronouncements of its talking heads (more on that later) to blips of archival footage punctuated by superfluous illustrations and back again—that the substance of Palin’s story is lost, having fallen victim to a visual avalanche.

The weirdly grandiose, martial tone is enhanced by Bannon’s garish soundtrack choices. Ominous sounds percolate amid a foreboding swirl of nighttime snow. Consistently driving drum beats emphasize the power and might of the saintly main figure. It often sounds as if Bannon intends to aurally compete with the ear-shattering summer blockbusters being screened next door. Joe Leydon, writing in Variety, puts it best: “[it’s] the sort of thunderous music one normally hears only in movies when astronauts are preparing to blow up meteors.”

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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