Conservative filmmaker Stephen Bannon thinks his film can win hearts and minds -- and maybe even, one day, votes -- for the former Alaska governor
MINNEAPOLIS -- He says his publicists didn't think he should meet with me. "Why?" I ask. "They said you wrote something bad about Palin or something." I tell him about the list I compiled of all her media feuds, with people like Dave Letterman and some former McCain staffers. Currently there are 86 names. My interviewee, filmmaker Stephen Bannon, shrugs, dismissing it, then goes about asking me questions about myself. This is a charming trait of his.
The night before I had viewed his latest film, The Undefeated. The original title was Take a Stand: The Stewardship of Sarah Palin.
"What did you think of my film?" Bannon asks. I smile. This was his opening question and he's now asked it three times. I relent.
"I thought there were a lot of GOP dog whistles in it," I say.
He says he has never heard that phrase before. Never? Really? He asks me what I mean.
The two-hour film is peppered with keywords. It's like SEO (search engine optimization) for movies: the words "ethics," "principles," "threat to the establishment," "CEO," and "kitchen table" are repeated several times during the film. So when you walk out of the theater suddenly you think, "Sarah Palin's ethics and principles are what make her a threat to the establishment." And everything wonderful and wholesome on this planet is summed up in the phrase "kitchen table" -- a table Palin chairs as its executive.
"Was that intentional?" I ask. What only can be described as a wry smile comes across Bannon's face. "'Dog whistles.' I like that," he says.
"It's highly structured and very thought through," he offers, then uses the word "sub-textual." He says there's a sub-texual understanding with those slogans.
He says he made the film for me. He didn't make the film for what he calls "Palinistas." He made it for people who don't know that she is, according to Bannon, a woman of accomplishment. Yes, he believes the problem with the former governor of Alaska -- the nearly three year object of the national media's obsession and author of two books about her life -- is that we don't know her. And for Bannon, to know her is to love her.
At the 9:30 pm screening Friday at the RightOnline conference in Minneapolis, he told the less than two-thirds full room that we were viewing the "unrated version." He said he'll have to do another cut to avoid an NC-17 rating. Spoiler: in the beginning of the film there's a picture of someone with a T-shirt with Palin's name and the word cunt. Other than that, the film was pretty G-rated. Or if we're being candid -- it's GOP-rated.
The themes and images are designed to make Republican-minded people react. There's an entire (estimated) 15-minutes of the film devoted just to re-capping Palin's 2008 Republican National Convention speech, along with reactions from her staunchest supporters (others of whom are interspersed throughout). The RightOnline crowd got fired up at the screening just like they did at the RNC the first time when Palin spoke of people in small towns: "They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America who grow our food, run our factories and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town."
And also when Barack Obama appeared in the documentary, making this April 2009 statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." That was, as Bannon would put it, "very thought through." And effective. Someone in the screening shouted, "Terrorist!" at the images of the president of the United States during this scene.
"I don't believe that. I'm not calling you a liar, but that didn't happen," says Bannon, told about the comment. It happened. I was sitting just two tables down from the shouter. "Did anyone say anything to him when he said it?" Bannon asks. I was too far away to see, I tell him. He later says that he is disappointed by that report. He says he doesn't feel that way about the president, who he says made the right decision on taking out Osama bin Laden.
Bannon keeps on insisting he made this film for me. And I keep asking him what his goal was. "I want to drive a stake into the heart of 'Caribou Barbie,'" he says. He wants to paint a picture of Palin as a frontier woman who, as he put it, "is Wal-Mart nation."
There's a lot of elite bashing in the film -- and also just in talking with Bannon. He rails against elites with the same regularity the rest of us check to make sure we haven't forgotten our cell phones (meaning: more than we want to admit to). Bannon worked at Goldman Sachs in the '80s. He has two homes in nice Los Angeles zip codes, and he's a Harvard Business School grad. "What's an elite?" I ask.
"An elite is someone who's for themselves and not for the country."
Are polluters elites? Companies that frack? Wal-Mart? "Under your definition aren't the Walton's elites?" I inquire.
"I don't know enough about the Walton's to say that," Bannon answers.
When pressed, he says that Mitt Romney, the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary, is an elite. Bannon served in the military, he tells me. I tell him I've always thought Romney's weakest point was his five able-bodied sons and not one of them signing up for service. He mentions former governor Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich -- also elites, in his calculus. Bannon says he wants this film to show people that Palin is better than Romney. Yes, he doesn't even mention a general election. This film is to re-vamp her image in the eyes of Republicans, so they will leave the theater and have a newfound "begrudging admiration for her." It's not for the general population.
"So your film is a primer for her in the primary?" I ask.
Bannon knows how to answer this question. His cheerful face stretches into an ear-to-ear smile. "I'm a commercial filmmaker," he says.
"So she's going to run for president?"
Same smile. "I'm a commercial filmmaker."
The final 10 minutes of the film are spent comparing Sarah Palin to Ronald Reagan. People said that Reagan was too extreme, too conservative, and that he'd never be president -- and they were all wrong, according to The Undefeated. "Why do you think I did that?" Bannon asks.
For the power of the association, I tell him. So people will think the two politicians have similar qualities. He says the tea party movement is like the Reagan Revolution. I tell him I disagree. Palin is much more like Barry Goldwater, if anything. Goldwater supporters stormed the San Francisco Republican convention in '64, lots of them "never having been involved in politics before." Just like we hear about the tea party. There was also the belief among Goldwater supporters that if there was ever a true conservative, the large bloc of dormant true conservatives would turn out to vote for him. Goldwater's opponent, Lyndon Johnson, won in a historic landslide in the '64 election.
Bannon ponders this for a second and says Goldwater was Reagan's John the Baptist.
Why is the film called The Undefeated? Bannon feigns insult at the question. He declares he thought I was smarter than that. Basically, he starts busting my chops and it looks like he's filibustering. "I know she's lost elections! See her at the end of the film in Madison and it's like water off a duck. She's not down. She's undefeated."
Isn't that technically "not defeated?" Sports teams who've never lost in a season are undefeated. But being undeterred is not defeated, not undefeated. I suspect another dog whistle. A phrase that at this point in the interview Bannon likes tossing around with a chuckle.
Is the film just glazing over failures in order to magnify the good parts of Palin's history? I mean, the New Testament is more critical of Jesus than The Undefeated is of Sarah Palin. I asked Bannon why he thinks people don't like Sarah Palin. He says it's because they don't like her politics. That answer satisfies him absolutely. They just disagree with her and that causes all the vitriol hurled at her.
When Bannon says he made the movie for me, he means women. He calls them "new agenda women." Women whom Bannon describes as being still mad about how Hillary Clinton was treated during the primaries. Yes, Steve Bannon is trying to capture the PUMA and feminist vote by rebranding Sarah Palin.
If Palin were more competent she'd be far less controversial to women. Women don't like how Palin is treated, but for some, it's not because she's criticized by the media or scrutinized -- it's because she's held to a lower standard than other politicians. If a man had given any of her answers to Katie Couric or in any of her interviews since, no one would think to make a movie highlighting all his accomplishments while being governor of one of the least populated states in the nation for a fraction of a term. It feels condescending to women who are actually smart and accomplished that Palin gets called smart and accomplished.
But The Undefeated's director and writer admits his project is about subtext. And the intended subtext of our chat: Palin intends to run for president because she's not defeated.
Principles. Ethics. A threat to the establishment. Kitchen table. CEO.
Image credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters