It’s Palin-as-projection who stars in “The Undefeated,” Stephen K. Bannon’s fawning, oddly bloodless portrait, which never opened in Washington. Instead, it made a brief midsummer tour through theaters in primary states before landing unceremoniously on pay-per-view Thursday. Now, at their convenience, and at a mere $5 a pop, viewers can see for themselves what audiences largely rejected at the multiplex: a tendentious, poorly made infomercial that reduces one of the most charismatic political and media figures of her age to little more than a talking point for far less telegenic talking heads. Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin deserves better.
After a melodramatic prologue, in which Bannon cuts together the most vicious, sexist attacks on Palin during her campaign alongside John McCain, the filmmaker embarks on his larger agenda: setting the record straight about Palin’s remarkable political career — imbuing it with near-spiritual meaning by way of biblical quotes promiscuously strewn amongst the film’s intertitles — and stoking the populist fires for a Palin presidential run in 2012.
So anyone looking for a new and revealing glimpse of Palin — who surely has won as many fans for her reality-TV show and rock-star-like bus tours as her policy positions — will be sorely disappointed by “The Undefeated,” which at least gratifyingly dispenses with fake-candid domestic scenes and tearful reminiscences of hardscrabble early days. Bannon instead starts with Palin’s political awakening, during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when she first considered channeling her outrage into running for office. She did, becoming mayor of Wasilla in 1996 and governor of Alaska 10 years later.
Bannon doesn’t pretend to be a neutral observer of Palin’s ascent — he’s made documentaries about such conservative touchstones as Ronald Reagan, illegal immigration and the tea party movement. But even if “The Undefeated” isn’t balanced, it provides a valuable service in illuminating Palin’s record during this time, when she genuinely earned that “maverick” title by bucking GOP cronyism, socking it to Big Oil and embarking on projects that, more often than not, enjoyed bipartisan support.
It’s a compelling story — maybe even a shocking one to Palin’s liberal detractors — but it’s too often obscured by the polarized opinions Palin inspired during the 2008 campaign. But it’s related in “The Undefeated” by a series of Palin’s colleagues and staffers from the time, their windy, repetitive tutorials on oil and gas negotiations and legislative sausage-making leavened only by an occasional archival photograph of a meeting or a clip of Palin giving a speech. (“The Undefeated” is un-narrated, although Bannon borrows prodigiously from Palin’s reading of her book “Going Rogue.”)
Based on her modest demeanor and record of budget, energy and ethics reform in Alaska, it’s easy to see her appeal to McCain, who called Palin while she was at the Alaska State Fair to ask her to run for veep. What “The Undefeated” doesn’t explain — in addition to the title “Undefeated” when Palin was, actually, defeated in 2008 — is how a woman whose early career had been dedicated to transcending partisan politics became such a ferocious political warrior while on the stump. Instead, Bannon sets Palin up as a victim — of liberals, of establishment conservatives and of the “lamestream media” that his subject has become so skilled at manipulating (a talent the filmmaker strangely neglects to mention).
With cheesy shots of a zebra being attacked by lions and staged sequences of angry crowds and wagging fingers, all backed by an increasingly ugly musical score that swerves from atonal dissonance to heavenly hymns, “The Undefeated” becomes less about Palin than about what her supporters so ardently want her to be. Especially vocal are such bloggers and talk-jocks as Andrew Breitbart, Tammy Bruce and Mark Levin, each of whom inveighs ad nauseam against anyone who at any time had anything less than hosannas to hurl at Palin’s feet. Levin, in particular, barks at considerable at length about how she’s the new incarnation of Reagan, a tirade that might tempt viewers to check their lapels for fingerprints when he’s finally finished.
It’s unclear how well “The Undefeated” will work as agitprop, although Bannon ends with a rousing call to arms on behalf of “true” conservatives everywhere to Take Their Country Back. (Giving credit for creating the tea party squarely to Palin, he incidentally gives the lie to claims that it had its roots in the profligate spending of the George W. Bush era.) What’s even less clear is whether Palin herself has any interest in heeding the call. That would mean relinquishing the job she seems to relish most: not sticking up for the little guy or sticking it to The Man, but getting people such as Bannon — and Breitbart and Levin and you and me — to talk about her and keep on talking.
(110 minutes on national and regional on-demand cable channels) is rated PG-13 for brief, strong profanity.