It happens that this Friday, July 15, sees the opening of two documentaries on similar subjects: strong, controversial, preternaturally chatty women, both onetime beauty queens, with a screen fascination equaled only by their all-American sex appeal.
What’s not the same are the women’s résumés. Errol Morris’ Tabloid takes a fond but skeptical view of Joyce McKinnon, a former Miss Wyoming who in 1977 tracked her Mormon ex-boyfriend to London and kidnapped him for three days of mad love. Stephen K. Bannon’s The Undefeated is a worshipful, no-warts biopic of Sarah Palin, a former Miss Wasilla who could be the next President of the United States — if she only had the time. She certainly has the star quality: she could be a sing-song showgirl playing a hip Sunday-school matron, winking at the class behind her granny glasses and making some of the older students hot for teacher.
The weirdest thing about Palin, and there are so many to choose from, is her ability to summon polar-opposite reactions, as if her fans were in Alaska and her defilers in Antarctica. The anti-Sarahs see her as both oddly comic and mythically frightening — a mix of Tina Fey and Morgan le Fay. And the pro-Sarahs: well, besides the right’s tendency to love everything the left hates, they have found their rifle-totin’ crusader, their Annie Oakley as Joan of Arc.
The latter is the view that dedicated Palintologist Bannon has brought to The Undefeated. The title is a neck swiveler, for, as some will recall, Palin’s one run for national office ended in defeat. But Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker whose doc on the financial crisis, Generation Zero, managed to blame liberal policies and not Goldman Sachs, doesn’t truck in delicate ironies or political ambiguities. In this endless (1 hr. 57 min.) Sarah paean — which uses Palin’s voice from her audio book Going Rogue plus backup from a dozen or so supporters — Bannon applies so much idolatrous airbrushing to his portrait of the divine Sarah that the movie might be called Going Rouge. But he’s canny in identifying the 2½-year governor of Alaska as both a faultless heroine and, even better, a victim of the omnipotent American left. This pair of Sarahs is meant to rally the faithful against a despised if imaginary enemy, just as George W. Bush marshaled a fearful America against Saddam Hussein.
Sarah the heroine is the Alaska-grown cutie who headed the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Wasilla High. (No mention of the five years she spent at five colleges, two in Barack Obama’s Hawaii, to earn her bachelor’s degree.) The movie says that Palin, horrified and mobilized by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, became something of an energy conservationist. After two terms on the Wasilla city council and two as mayor, she was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Energy Commission, where she … Sorry, I just nodded off writing that sentence. The first hour of The Undefeated, scrupulously attentive to Palin’s rise through state politics, is pretty rough going, a turgid primer on Alaska’s pipeline management and oil, gas and, yes, milk subsidies. The movie may tempt even the most ardent conservatives to emulate their idol’s tenure as governor and walk out halfway through.
Suffice to say that, in Bannon’s version of things, Palin fights the good fight, beats the fat cats and trumpets the pioneer independence of Alaskans from the predatory federal government — a government that, by the way, returns $1.84 in aid to the state for every dollar it sends to Washington (the third highest payback among the 50 states), even though Alaskans have the fourth largest median household income. In other words, one of the richest states gets one of the biggest federal handouts, and its citizens get wealthier with annual checks from oil profits that average about $1,500 per citizen. But previous Alaska governors had pampered their constituencies without achieving anything like Palin’s historically high approval ratings, let alone the attention of a Republican presidential candidate looking for a running mate with a fresh face.
Radical liberals, The Undefeated asserts, immediately saw hers as a face to be slapped. To establish Palin’s victimhood, the movie opens with slurs by supposed liberal-establishment types like Matt Damon, who compares Palin’s run for the vice presidency to “a really bad Disney movie,” and David Letterman, whose list of the top 10 things Sarah Palin did on a visit to New York City included “No. 2: Bought makeup at Bloomingdale’s to update her ‘slutty flight attendant’ look.” (Does Bannon recall the decade or so Letterman mocked Bill Clinton?) Nastier blogorrhea — “Sarah Palin should die,” “Kill Sarah Palin” — is presented as a continuation of liberal mocking, as if the right didn’t have nut cases of its own.
Later, in his oddly brief coverage of the 2008 election campaign — and with barely a mention of the man who plucked Palin from Alaskan obscurity to be his running mate — Bannon cites a Gallup poll in September 2008 that had McCain-Palin tracking slightly above Obama-Biden. Then the media gave her 40 whacks for her family values, her love of God, her slippery grasp of facts, and just like that, the ticket was doomed by the elitist, socialist punditocracy. Finally The Undefeated blames Palin’s 2009 resignation from statewide office, when the governor abruptly became the governot, on “frivolous” lawsuits brought against her by outside agitators.
The whole anti-Palin assault, you see, was personally directed by Barack Obama, a onetime “community organizer” (say it with a sneer) whose god was Chicago’s über-organizer Saul Alinsky and whose Bible was Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Andrew Breitbart, one of the film’s more prominent talking heads, quotes “Saul Alinsky’s Rule 13: Destroy your opponent.” Actually, he misquotes it: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.” But Breitbart, the blogger who defamed Shirley Sherrod and exposed Anthony Weiner, wins the argument anyway by invoking Alinsky — and smearing Obama. He should have acknowledged that Alinsky’s tactics as a noncommunist activist organizing Chicago stockyard workers and slum residents indirectly inspired the ground-up organizing principle of Sarah Palin’s favorite political group, the Tea Party.
Another of Alinsky’s rules — “If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through and become a positive” — has become gospel for conservatives in Congress and on talk radio. The ridiculing of Palin has been nowhere near as insistent or toxic as the demonizing of the President. Palin enunciates the right’s suspicion of Obama’s otherness by saying, “We need a leader who is one of us.” Her supporters go further: the movie shows one placard at a Palin rally reading “God … Guns … Guts … Palin.” The Undefeated invokes its star as a female Ronald Reagan: he chainsaws a tree; she buttresses her Mama Grizzly militarism with wolf shoots from helicopters. And her targets aren’t only Democrats. The film’s last segment clarifies Palin’s distance from traditional Republicans and solidarity with the Tea Party — a clarion call that should send a shiver through GOP establishmentarians like John Boehner and that his second in command, Eric Cantor, is heeding as he scotches a deficit-ceiling deal Boehner was ready to accept.
Somebody could make a compelling movie out of these battles of left and right (actually center and right) and right and further right. But Bannon is stymied by his need to make a straightforward Palin hagiography and, even more so, by his clumsiness as a film propagandist. A mention of media attack dogs summons a clip of attack dogs; white collar workers are posed as the three “no evil” monkeys; when liberals dis Saint Sarah, a shot appears of lions devouring a zebra carcass. A jittery director, Bannon can’t abide a static shot of someone speaking a full sentence, so he cuts the image from one side of the screen to the other or slides the person across it like a kid playing on the floor with cardboard cutouts. Over and over, he uses a few themes in David Cebert’s rippling, incantatory original score that sound like a happy mashup of Philip Glass’s greatest hit but with a heavenly choir for emotional uplift. As a maker of timely, incendiary documentaries, Bannon could be the Michael Moore of the hard right — if he had some saving sense of humor and if anyone paid to see his movies.
Maybe The Undefeated is Bannon’s big chance. It opens this weekend in Atlanta; Dallas; Denver; Houston; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Mo.; Oklahoma City; Orange County, California; Orlando and Phoenix. It does not open in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago — those cities are for the decadent likes of Tabloid — nor, for now, anywhere in Alaska. The website us4palin.com, like a good community organizer, is rousing Palinophiles “to attend the premiere of this epic film. SUCCESS of this film is CRUCIAL to the road to the White House, should Governor Palin seek the presidency in 2012.” A better reason would be to get a two-hour devotional view of the closest thing national politics has to a movie star, in a picture that plays like a No. 1 fan’s purest, longest love letter.