Nick Broomfield is a British documentarian with a reputation for being boldly unafraid to ruffle people’s feathers. In films like “Biggie & Tupac” and, most notoriously, “Kurt and Courtney,” he seemed unconcerned with the status quo (or possibly lawsuits), making inflammatory claims and taking part in gleeful provocation, a welcome change of pace from the overtly mannered realm of current documentary filmmaking. Which makes “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!,” his new film about America’s one-time potential Vice President and former Governor of Alaska, so odd – it’s boring, toothless, and genial. Anyone (like me) smacking their gums in anticipation of the pointed evisceration Palin would receive from the guy who not-so-subtly suggested Courtney Love engineered Kurt Cobain’s death is going to be sorely disappointed.
To be fair, Broomfield has a co-director on this one, Joan Churchill (who seems to be the other cameraperson in this micro-budgeted production), which could explain the tonal mellowness. But that only goes so far. This movie is unfocused, shallow, and dull; strange considering Palin is easily Broomfield’s splashiest target thus far.
‘You Betcha!’ basically consists of Broomfield, the erudite Englishman, dressed as an Alaskan everyman (complete with mismatched plaids on both his jacket and hat), bumbling around Wasilla, Alaska, trying to get the truth out of various Palin family members, friends, co-workers, and hangers-on. You keep waiting for the scope to expand, for Broomfield to thoughtfully detail what could have happened if she had been elected Vice President, and what power she currently wields, both in the media and the increasingly volatile Tea Party movement, but instead whole chunks of the movie are devoted to watching Broomfield slip around on slick Alaskan ice. Incisive!
The main thesis of the movie seems to be that Sarah Palin is a bitchy, petty, dangerous woman who, whenever she ascended to the next rung of power, would cut away those she felt unimportant to her continued success, and immediately start attacking those didn’t fall in line with her way of thinking. Sometimes, the facts alone are genuinely shocking enough to get a rise out of you – the way she would unilaterally fire whole swaths of the town and state government, down to librarians. Broomfield does get to talk to the ex-brother-in-law at the center of the Troopergate scandal, his neck as big around as a monster truck tire, which is something of an exclusive, but just reiterates the points already made: Palin, in her cheerily sociopathic way, is not someone you want to mess with.
Breaking up the prolonged sections of half-assed Wasilla investigatory work, Broomfield travels to Egypt to talk to the one former friend of Palin’s who was actually willing to go on the record (a dubious claim at best). What’s more amazing than what she says about Palin (the same thing everyone else says about her), is this friend’s look – bubblegum-colored lipstick, a broad whoosh of fake eyebrows – proof that you can take the girl out of Wasilla, but you can’t take Wasilla out of the girl. Intermittently, too, we see Broomfield, in a “Roger and Me”-style quest, try to get on-the-fly interviews with Palin, mostly by attending book signings of her best-selling “Going Rogue.” The “climax” of the movie, which you see in the trailer, is Broomfield attempting to ask a question during a town hall meeting with Palin. He stands up and asks her if she thinks her political career is over. It’s a probing question, and one that the documentary never engages with.
There are a lot of things that are truly frightening about Sarah Palin – her attitudes towards academia, her vindictive personality, her religious zealotry, her connection to big corporations like Murdoch’s News Corp, and the way her bloody rhetoric has inspired conservative extremists like the ones that shot down representative Giffords in Arizona. These points are all touched on, fleetingly, but never given enough time to be thoughtfully and pointedly developed, to the point where you really feel the Palin threat (even if at this point she’s been mostly defanged and her political chances are virtually null).
‘You Betcha!’ also lacks the trashy sizzle of Broomfield’s earlier work. At one point he points out that the microscopic Wasilla (with a population of around 6,000) is the crystal meth capitol of Alaska. He doesn’t engage with why this is, or if Palin had anything to do with cracking down on drug use in her hometown. Instead, it’s just a throwaway line, meant to titillate for a moment and then recede. While the supposed infidelity of both Palins is briefly alluded to, we’re not even given the off-color accusations cheekily brought up by Joe McGinniss in his new book “The Rogue” – things like cocaine use and the conspiratorial thought that the Palins’ down-syndrome baby might not actually (biologically) be theirs.
More damning to Palin would have been if Broomfield had just edited together her most inexcusable remarks, partnered with politicians and pundits pontificating on what she would have done if she would assumed the power of Vice President. That would have been shocking, scary, and fun – and what’s more, it would have saved us the embarrassment of watching Broomfield slip around on ice for twenty minutes. [C-]