Documentary on Sarah Palin takes sympathetic approach

It has all the feel of a varnished campaign kickoff video, but “The Undefeated,” a new documentary about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, doesn’t get its audiences any closer to knowing whether she’ll run for president in 2012.

Produced and directed by conservative filmmaker Steve Bannon, “The Undefeated” was not paid for by Palin. Nor did she influence its content in any way, Bannon said at a screening of the film Thursday in the offices of a small video production company in Arlington.

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You wouldn’t know it from the deeply sympathetic movie, which portrays Palin as a devoted wife and mother — and a hugely successful political leader whose quintessentially Alaskan spirit propelled her to stand up to corporate interests and the political establishment both as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska.

The documentary will be released July 15 in AMC theaters across the country, spokesman Keith Appell said. Cities include Dallas, Denver, Orlando, Atlanta, Orange County, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Kansas City.

The screening comes just as Palin has finished the first leg of her “One Nation” bus tour, which she has described as a family vacation to historical sites across the country, but which has generated much media attention and renewed speculation about a potential presidential candidacy.

The film adopts one of Palin’s favorite points of view: that throughout her political career she has been the victim of vicious attacks from political enemies and the media. Among other melodramatic imagery, the movie shows frothing attack dogs and a lion killing a beautiful zebra to symbolize the way Palin has been treated at the hands of the press. (Such scenes, and another showing a T-shirt that uses an obscenity to describe the former governor, are among the reasons “The Undefeated” is unrated.)

“The countervailing meme is out there, and I’m trying to balance the scales of justice with another set of facts,” Bannon said. “Everybody goes in with a point of view. I’m a conservative populist. Just like Michael Moore, it’s a strong point of view. But I think it’s very objective. This is a pretty definable set of facts that are out there.”

The movie begins with the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a disaster that Palin’s husband, Todd, described as “heartbreaking” — and that Palin cites in her autobiography, “Going Rogue,” as one of the defining events that propelled her to seek public office.

“I was a young mother-to-be with a blue-collar husband heading up to the slope,” Palin said. “If I ever had a chance to serve my fellow citizens, I would do so, and I’d work for the ordinary hardworking people.”

“The Undefeated” explores Palin’s rise to mayor of Wasilla and credits her with bringing a fiscally conservative philosophy to the job and for opening up the region as a booming bedroom community to Anchorage. It also explores her term as governor, characterizing her as standing up to oil companies over drilling rights, successfully advocating to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope and facing down cronyish state lawmakers in the pocket of the energy industry.

The movie includes no direct interviews with Palin, but it does feature the former governor reading short excerpts from “Going Rogue.” Bannon said he met with Palin a few weeks ago in Phoenix, where she told him the movie “blew her away.”

The film relies heavily on interviews with about a dozen people, all of them confirmed Palin supporters, including Andrew Breitbart, talk show host Tammy Bruce and Virginia tea party leader (and U.S. Senate candidate) Jamie Radtke. It features ample video footage of her public appearances and speeches as a politician, as well as home movies of her as a small child or dribbling a basketball at Wasilla High School. The film features no interviews with detractors, but it does rely on television news reports and newspaper headlines to lend credibility to the portrayal of her successes as both mayor and governor.

It also reminds viewers how popular Palin was as an elected leader in Alaska: She won mayoral reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote, and she resoundingly defeated incumbent Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary for governor in 2006. Before she became Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008, her approval rating among Alaskans soared above 80 percent.

The movie is clearly structured to push back against the widely held view that Palin lacks the leadership experience or skills to be president. Bannon compared Palin’s term as governor to that of former President George W. Bush, concluding: “What she accomplished in Alaska is demonstrably much more impressive than what he accomplished as governor of Texas.” He added: “I wouldn’t have made this film if I didn’t think we needed a leader like her, and I hope she runs for president.”

“The Undefeated” has the air of an Errol Morris documentary, not only for its Philip Glass-like soundtrack but for its use of dramatic and sometimes surreal reenactments, such as a female hand wagging a finger meant to be a scolding Palin as she cleaned up government. The similarity to Morris’s work, known for exposing corruption and deep social injustices in such classics as “The Thin Blue Line,” is notable.

Bannon said the movie will be previewed in at least four states with early nominating contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. But he said it is not a political movie but rather a commercial production, so as well as being released across the country, the film will be available on video and through video-on-demand and pay-per-view services.

Although Bannon repeated several times that he maintained complete editorial control over the movie, he noted that the project first took form when two Palin associates, spokeswoman Rebecca Mansour and SarahPAC treasurer Tim Crawford, contacted him to see if he would produce a series of short videos for distribution on YouTube.

Bannon, who also directed the documentaries “Generation Zero” and “Fire from the Heartland,” declined the offer but then came up with the idea of an independent, feature-length documentary, he said.

 
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