Sarah Palin's 'The Undefeated': Bad Propaganda, Worse Filmmaking
Whatever you think of her, Palin deserves a better documentary than this
“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.
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.”
The mistakes aren’t limited to this sort of bombast. While Palin did not directly participate in the doc, Bannon makes the fundamental miscalculation of using her audiobook recitation of her memoir Going Rogue: An American Life as narration. Her sing-songy voice, which has that unfortunate ever-so-slightly condescending bedtime story ring to it, is not well suited to a form that demands the ability to tell a tale with conversational authority. This isn’t, to be sure, Palin’s fault. Her tone works for an audiobook, when she’s functionally a stand-in for the reader. But if Bannon had studied the cadences and intonations employed by Morgan Freeman, David McCullough, and others who have mastered the art of film narration, he’d have quickly seen that the two styles don’t really overlap.
Finally, Bannon corrals an impressive assemblage of talking heads, from Bruce to publisher Andrew Breitbart and talk-show host Mark Levin, who repeat their same basic thoughts (centered on what Tina Dupuy correctly deemed “GOP dog whistles”) over and over again. Palin is “like a marine.” She takes on the “elites.” She understands “real” Americans because she’s a “mama grizzly”/“hockey mom”/“pitbull with lipstick.” Generally, each expert speaks with the anger and righteous indignation of a person scorned, but it’s never entirely clear what these privileged, successful individuals have to be so incensed about. The filmmaker would have done well to rein things in a bit, particularly when Breitbart undercuts the entire Palin-as-feminist-icon premise of the picture by excoriating the male politicians who never defended her from criticism as “eunuchs.”
There’s nothing implicitly wrong with the picture’s message, or the overarching notion that the world needs a counterpunch to the anti-Palin fervor that’s gripped much of the mainstream media not owned by Rupert Murdoch. The film doesn’t address most common Palin criticisms, other than counteracting the lumps she took over her resignation from the Alaskan governorship in 2009. But then its maker would probably deem those attacks unworthy of a reply anyway, the fantasies of the “lamestream liberal media elites,” or whatever.
The biggest obstacle facing The Undefeated isn’t its hagiographic leanings, the press’s scornful treatment of its heroine, or that most hedonistic Sodom: left-wing Hollywood. This Sarah Palin hosanna is done in by the simple fact that its director needs to go back to film school.