In “The Undefeated,” Stephen K. Bannon’s hagiographic clip show about Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice president candidate assumes a larger-than-life presence.
In a running voiceover nabbed from the audiobook version of her best-seller “Going Rogue,” Palin comments on her rise to prominence while largely staying out of the picture. Although technically an authorized account of Palin’s multi-year blitz through several Alaskan offices before jumping ship for a more robust spot on the national stage, the movie relies on the testimony of various colleagues and passionate followers to embolden her legacy. For those wondering if Palin might pursue the White House come next year, “The Undefeated,” at the very least, argues that she should try. But even as it makes the facile Palin-for-president case, fence-sitters will find themselves non-plussed and existing Palin haters won’t budge.
Her diehard supporters are a different story. With greater confidence than skill, Bannon crafts an occasionally fascinating, frustrating and unabashedly propagandistic showcase that preaches to the choir and then runs it into the ground.
Whether portraying his subject as a bipartisan outsider willing to deviate from her party’s path for the greater good, or an earnest woman of blue-collar origins who speaks for her people, Bannon’s strategy is simple: In addition to a handful of secondary interviews to back up Palin’s voiceover, he relies on a rapid-fire editing strategy that enthusiastically veers from one galvanizing Palin stump speech to the next.
Hilariously on-the-nose symbolism ties it all together. Discussion of media attack dogs, for example, leads to repeated cutaways of… attack dogs. When Palin talks about trimming Alaska’s budget, money swirls down the toilet. Like her aggrandizing publicity attempts, the narrative format of “The Undefeated” is anything but subtle.
At first, Bannon shows some potential with this approach, a result of the formalistic assertions driving it. He revealed his logic in a recent Variety interview: “He calls his style ‘kinetic,'” reported Ted Johnson, “heavy in quick cuts and imagery and, at certain points, to ‘almost overwhelm the audience’ in the density of material.” (Behold the right-wing’s very own Dziga Vertov, the influential Soviet documentarian whose 1920s work also re-edited news footage with ideological intentions to dizzying effect.)
For Bannon’s purposes, the opening sequence gets the job done. As David Cebert’s ominous score sets the tone, Bannon unleashes a speedy montage of Palin hatred from across the media spectrum, from celebrity indictments (Matt Damon, famously calling Palin’s vice presidential nomination “a really bad Disney movie”) to equally annoyed Facebook posters. As if the polemics weren’t clear enough, Bannon then repeats them at an even faster pace before segueing into the serene credit sequence, which displays home video of a young Palin underscored by a soulful rendition of “The Minstrel Boy” (an Irish folk song that contains the telling line, “no chain shall sully thee”). Bannon could have just as easily played “I Will Survive.”
From there, the movie dovetails into Palin’s account of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, highlighting the impact it had on the upstart politician to continue her journey from city councilwoman to Wasilla mayor and beyond. (Both her personal life and public scandals like Troopergate go unmentioned.) With an informercial’s ease, Bannon follows Palin’s ascent to oil queen and her accumulation of enemies when she continued her platforms through a variety of offices (until she quit that racket in 2009, faced with multiple charges of ethics violations).
Smoothing over the hostility of its first few minutes, the movie positions Palin as an embodiment of the state’s ideals. “Alaska is a land of extremes,” an interviewee says, “Extreme climate, extreme resources and extreme people.” It also tracks the evolution of her inner circle, particularly “the magnificent seven” — a group of Palin devotees who resigned from the Department of Natural Resources after former Governor Frank Murkowski fired their boss for questioning the legality of the state’s negotiations with oil companies. Palin takes charge, Alaska maintains control of its pipeline, and everyone’s happy. Drill, baby, drill! (Nobody says that, but the sentiment is clear.)
Up until this point, it’s a breezy ride. Compared to the combative style of discourse popularized by Fox News, Bannon takes one side and sticks with it. He’s even, in his own lopsided way, an artful storyteller. “The Undefeated” adopts a chapter-based structure that moves swiftly through its initial hour or so, if an audience were to take its glowing portrait as gospel (the cinematic response arrives soon enough courtesy of Nick Broomfield, who’s putting the finishing touches on an anti-Palin documentary now).
Nevertheless, the story eventually sags. Bannon’s zombielike interviewees speak against a familiar white backdrop often used in — you guessed it — campaign commercials. More grating than a Ross Perot pie chart, “The Undefeated” flatlines after an hour of empty back-patting and no dramatic edge. Bannon actively avoids any of Palin’s setbacks, downplaying the entire 2008 presidential campaign to a few minutes of screen time.
With no footage of Palin in action, Bannon focuses on her abstract dimension, including a coda titled “Children of the Revolution” that places her in line with the values of Ronald Reagan. Interview subjects, all Palin supporters and friends, offer ecstatic praise and lambast the naysayers with meaningless platitudes. (Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on Palin hatred: “Men no longer have a sense of chivalry.”)
Although Bannon repeatedly blows air kisses, “The Undefeated” operates under epic pretenses. It begins with a quote from the New Testament (“every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit”; St. Matthew 7:17) and closes with a line by Thomas Paine: “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” Viewed together, those bookends imply that Palin’s heroism has both Biblical and messianic qualities. Bannon obviously wants these absolutes to make the movie accessible to viewers with varying degrees of intellectual capacity. Only others with similar feelings of affection for this super soccer mom will want to join in.
“The Undefeated” does succeed in forming the pre-eminent audiovisual representation of Palin’s self-satisfied mythmaking. Bannon has joined the orgiastic attempts to make the world view Palin’s current inaction as an agent of change. Appropriately, it could use the same humility lesson that Palin deserves. At an hour and 57 minutes, Bannon’s clip show needs its wings clipped, but that’s the least of its problems.
“The Undefeated”opens at AMC Theaters in major cities, including Dallas and Detroit. It will do good business for many weeks, if not months.