Undefeated, The (2011)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/24/11 12:30:31
When the imminent release of "The Undefeated," Stephen K. Bannon's documentary on controversial politician Sarah Palin, was announced a few weeks ago, I paid it little mind because it appeared that it was largely going to be released in areas where her popularity is at its strongest and Chicago certainly is not the kind of place that would seem to fit that particular bill. Nevertheless, a special one-time screening of the film was arranged so that the faithful and curious alike could see it without having to venture to the filthy and savage wilds of Wisconsin to see it and when I unexpectedly received an invitation to attend the screening, I immediately chose to see it for a variety of reasons despite my fairly overt liberal leanings. For one, I though that some of the coverage that it had already received was a bit unfair--one article announced in its headline that the author was the only person in attendance at the opening screening that he went to and only later did you discover that said screening was a Thursday midnight showing, a time that might easily lure fans of Harry Potter or the Transformers but not necessarily a time that Palin supporters would be likely to be at the local multiplex. Additionally, I sometimes like documentaries about subjects that I don't necessarily have any vested interest in personally--one of the very best documentaries I have ever seen is Errol Morris' masterpiece "Gates of Heaven" and that was about pet cemeteries (among other things), something that I couldn't care less about otherwise. Finally, it seemed that if there was ever a time to see the film, going to see it in a theater located on a city block that was also hosting the liquidation sale of the local Borders flagship store on one corner and a Bill Maher concert on the other during the same day seemed somehow appropriate in a weird sort of way.In the film, Bannon chronicles Palin's meteoric rise from obscure Alaskan politician to Republican vice-presidential candidate to unofficial face of the emerging Tea Party political movement. After an extended quote from the Sermon on the Mount and a prologue chronicling some of the critical things said about Palin in recent years from members of the smug and evil Hollywood elite running the gamut from Matt Damon and Madonna to Bill Maher and Sandra Bernhard, the film offers a brief overview of Palin's early years as wife, mother, fisherman and Miss America contestant leading up to her becoming galvanized by the ecological destruction caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the subsequent lack of accountability to throw her hat into the political ring as an outsider determined to bring ethical reform to a seemingly corrupt institution. With a cadre of advisors that would become known as the Magnificent Seven (no details about who got to be Yul Brynner and who had to settle for Horst Buchholz, a silly aside I include only because I rarely get to make any Horst Buchholz references these days), she became the two-time mayor of the rapidly emerging city of Wasilla and was later elected governor, where her popularity inspired John McCain to select her as his running mate in an attempt to jump-start his then-floundering campaign. My guess is that from this point on, you pretty much know the rest of the story.
Although it is safe to assume that most left-leaning moviegoers will give "The Undefeated" the kind of wide berth usually reserved for films in which David Spade gets anything higher than third billing, those who do actually watch the film may be surprised to discover that it doesn't conform entirely to their presumptions about what it may or may not contain. For example, some of the stuff involving Palin's earlier forays into politics is kind of interesting, partly because it is the kind of stuff that hasn't been reported and analyzed to death by now and partly because the Ordinary Person Taking On the System premise is a foolproof classic since the days of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (a still from which she professes to have kept in her office) and it still has some juice here, especially during the moments when the rabble-rousing almost seems kind of. . .dare I say "liberal"? Okay, maybe that is going a bit too far but you know what I mean.
Another surprise is that while one might expect plenty of potshots at Democrats in general and President Obama in particular, the film is actually quite light on such commentary. In fact, Bannon expends far more venom on calling out establishment Republicans up to and including George W. Bush who he feels were just as culpable for the country's current economic free fall, if not more so since they are the ones who are often campaigning on promises of fiscal conservatism. The only political party that comes out of "The Undefeated" is the Tea Party and it is clear that Bannon (who has made other documentaries on the Tea Party over the last couple of years) would be giddy beyond belief if Palin were to shuck the G.O.P. altogether and run under their allegedly purer auspices.
These elements do come as a surprise but as the film goes on (and on), it becomes apparent that Bannon is more interested in Palin as some kind of symbol of fresh and unspoiled political purity and his efforts to keep that conceit going against all odds makes it a frustrating experience for those who wouldn't have minded a closer examination of who she is and what drives her. The film spends plenty of time on her achievements during her brief tenure as governor of Alaska but gives the 2008 presidential campaign surprisingly short shrift--we hear about how her nomination changed the face of politics forever (at least among those who have forgotten Geraldine Ferraro) and how she was single-handedly responsible for McCain's post-convention surge in the polls that was thwarted only by the tanking economy and after skipping over the nuts and bolts of the election entirely, it handles her subsequent resignation as governor by stating that she was so viciously attacked by enemies on the left and right alike (who says bipartisanship no longer exists) that she had to leave selflessly leave the office so that the business of the state could continue. (No mention of the millions she subsequently made from book deals and various TV gigs, of course.)
Part of the problem is that Palin herself doesn't actually appear in the film outside of archival footage and snippets of narration taken from the audiobook version of her memoir "Going Rogue" and while I suppose there are ways of making a compelling documentary without the participation of the key participant but Bannon hasn't quite figured out how to do it. It is obvious that he has studied the films of Errol Morris because he uses many of the tricks that he has employed over the years--including talking head interviews, ironically chose stock footage and the occasional dramatic interpretation--but they never come off especially well here. The interviews quickly grow repetitive and the participants generally feel as though they are reading lines instead of speaking their own minds. To steal a quote from the late, great "MST3K," the use of stock footage is quite silly to begin with (including symbolizing Palin's opponents with such subtle material as rapid dogs, lions attacking a helpless zebra and various cataclysms straight out of the Michael Bay playbook) and so prevalent that it eventually becomes stock mileage after a while. As for the dramatic interpretations--jeering crowds, evil Harvard eggheads and the like--they are staged so badly that they stick out like sore thumbs and matters aren't helped by Bannon's insistence on showing much of this stuff in slow motion because everyone knows that with the exception of the Six-Million-Dollar Man, evil is at its most prevalent when it is in slo-mo.As others have already pointed out, "The Undefeated" is, when all is said and done, little more than an extended version of one of those fawning films that candidates commission about themselves to play at political conventions just before they accept their party's nomination--true believers will not have their faith questioned, skeptics will not have their questions answered (such as how it can rightly be called "The Undefeated" in the first place when. . .well, you know) and pundits will be able to discuss the meaning of it all without really adding of value to the conversation. The difference is that those convention movies usually clock in at around 20 minutes and, if done correctly, hopefully leave their target audiences clamoring for more. "The Undefeated," on the other hand, clocks in at nearly two hours and by the time it finally concludes, I suspect that liberal and conservative viewers alike will find themselves united in the shared belief that they might have liked it a little more if there had been a little less. Somewhere out there, there is a fascinating film to be made about Sarah Palin and the political landscape that allowed grab hold of the national consciousness and continue to hang on long beyond her presumed shelf life. Alas, "The Undefeated" is not that film and just because it isn't the completely ham-fisted hagiography that some expected or feared it to be doesn't make it any better in the end..
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