The Undefeated is the story of Sarah Palin’s life in politics, refracted through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.”
The documentary film’s closing image is Palin at an April 17 Tea Party rally in Wisconsin, declaring, “President Obama, game on!” The film is tentatively scheduled to have its first releases in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, all key primary states. Obviously, a Palin presidential campaign is official only when word comes from Palin herself. But this stirring, surprisingly artistic, and narrative-driven film will seem strangely incomplete without one.
Shortly after the 2010 midterms, Rebecca Mansour and Tim Crawford of SarahPAC approached Stephen Bannon, creator of the documentary Fire in the Heartland, about doing a 30-minute short about Palin. He replied that the proposed concept and format didn’t interest him, but that he did have his own vision for a full-length documentary film, one he was willing to finance himself. His only request for Palin’s PAC was help in getting access to some key figures from the early days of her career in Alaska. Palin herself had no editorial control of the film, and in fact first watched a cut only two weeks ago. Last week, on Greta Van Susteren’s show, Palin declared she was “blown away” by the film.
Before the screening, Bannon mentioned that I and other political reporters were about to watch the “X-rated version,” as opposed to a “XXX-rated version” that he envisions being released on DVD someday. Within the first four minutes, the reason for that cryptic remark was clear, and the X rating is well deserved: The worst sneers, insults, and furious denunciations from Palin’s enemies are presented in their original language, sans any bleeps. (A version in theaters is likely to bleep out the worst ones.) The F word and the C word make multiple appearances. What’s remarkable is that the acidic comments from comedians such as David Letterman, Joan Rivers, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tracey Morgan aren’t really jokes. There’s no punch line per se; calling Palin “slutty” or a “whore,” or offering some other (usually sexual) insult, apparently is supposed to be the punch line.
“I believe you have to grab the audience in the beginning,” Bannon says. Perhaps he’s understated his grab.
The Undefeated skips through most of Palin’s early life with a series of family photos and home movies. Using Palin’s voice from the audiobook version of Going Rogue, Bannon begins his narrative with the Exxon Valdez disaster, and we note that in the late 1980s, Palin was a mom-to-be working on her husband’s commercial-fishing vessel, witnessing the carnage of unemployment, foreclosures, alcoholism, divorces, and suicides unleashed by the catastrophe and its aftermath. It is as difficult to picture young Palin as a future national political leader as to imagine an awkward, biracial teen in Punahou School in Honolulu the late 1970s winning the presidency.
By far, the most eye-opening part of the film — and no doubt, most useful to the presidential hopes of Palin — is the second act, detailing Palin’s time as Alaska’s governor. Oil companies are the relentless villain of Alaskan politics; in retrospect it seems bizarre that the woman most hated by modern liberals spent so much of her career fighting tooth and nail with oil-company executives. During this whole stretch, there isn’t a partisan note. Alaskan politics is painted as a rigged game benefiting the politically powerful and influential with the citizenry getting the short end of the stick, time and again — until Palin appears on the scene.
“I’ve had people tell me it’s too long, you’ve got to shorten it and dumb it down, but I believe that if you expect more of your audience, they’ll rise to the material,” Bannon says. “It’s like a Harvard Business School case study. I would put her accomplishments in those most important 18 months up against the most productive 18 months of any other governor of the 20th century or 21st century. And even though I never mention it in the film, in the middle of all that, she had a baby.”
Bannon’s style is characterized by rapid editing; he notes that the film includes three times as many images and cuts as would a comparable PBS documentary. His illustrative choices are comical (while an Alaskan official discusses intense legal fights with the oil companies, we see two men in suits, one concealing a knife behind his back, the other a gun), vivid (war footage), and sometimes unnerving (when talking about how the Left sought to drive Palin out of public life, we see sand being shoveled on a corpse).
Before the screening, Bannon had jokingly called the film “a John Ford Western about Sarah Palin.” Asked about the comparison afterward, he cringed and emphasized that he didn’t want to compare himself to the legendary director. But he did acknowledge that “in John Ford’s movies, Monument Valley is playing West Texas. In this film, Alaska is a character.” He emphasizes the unique culture of the state with a combination of historical footage, sweeping helicopter shots cruising through breathtaking vistas, and a lengthy focus on how living in the dramatic environment shapes Alaska’s people.
Once the film catches up to where most of America met Palin — when she joined John McCain on the campaign trail — it loses a bit of its narrative punch. For those who have followed the news, the story of the convention speech, the dramatic surge her selection provided to the McCain campaign, and the financial meltdown are familiar territory. Palin’s decision to resign is given a better explanation and justification here than in her actual resignation speech.
Tammy Bruce, Mark Levin, and Andrew Breitbart are featured heavily in this section, and with no disrespect intended to any of them, Palin’s story is more powerfully told through the voices of Alaskans obscure to most Americans than through the semi-familiar voices of conservative pundits. This is not to say this section doesn’t pack its punches, one of which is a particularly impassioned prosecutorial indictment of the Republican party establishment. (Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, along with House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor, might want to step out for popcorn at this point.) Breitbart in particular gets a memorable denunciation of “eunuchs” on the cultural right in Washington and New York City. There’s some extraneous commentary, but Levin does astutely note that the Palin campaign rallies in autumn 2008 can easily be seen as embryonic Tea Party rallies, and the film ably contends that Palin’s values and approach to governing experienced a vivid national vindication in the historic Republican wins in the 2010 midterms. This appears to be why Bannon picked the title The Undefeated, already being mocked by the familiar chorus. One of the last comments from Breitbart is, “Thank God Sarah Palin refused to accept the premise of her own destruction.”
Bannon notes that the film implicitly contrasts two images of Palin: First her convention debut, on a bright stage, in perfectly polished form (her choice to dress in off-white looks almost symbolic in retrospect), and then her appearance on a rainy, gray day in Wisconsin in spring 2011, politically bruised but unyielding, much farther along in her life’s journey and much more tested by hardships, setbacks, and the difficult climb confronted by any great protagonist. Add one more countenance to The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
—Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.