I don’t enjoy trying to defend Nick Broomfield. His documentary style is an acquired taste, and I don’t always know how to put my finger on what I like about him. What I do know is that people should never go into his films expecting something other than a Nick Broomfield film. Otherwise you’re one of the millions disappointed with “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie & Tupac.” And you’ll be disappointed with his latest, “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” (co-directed with longtime collaborator Joan Churchill), which returns him to his trademark form of first-person investigative cinema after a couple brilliant ventures into more reenacted realities. At times he is more obnoxiously bumptious here, unfortunately more comparable to Michael Moore than usual, but like Moore’s main problem it’s the size of the subject that hurts him the most here. Veering towards the worst of “stalk-umentary” awkwardness (I now see that Churchill also worked on “Tell Them Who You Are,” which is interesting), the doc occasionally made me embarrassed for both Broomfield and my own fandom of him. From my capsule review at Movies.com:
However, I can’t really recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t already like the filmmaker and onscreen character of Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney; Biggie and Tupac). Even then he’s obviously pursuing the impossible here, though I believe he has a better chance getting the cooperation of Palin than he did Courtney Love. Ultimately it’s a decent look at the price of talking, in more ways than one, but it doesn’t have an ending let alone any final point.
I tend to concentrate on what documentaries are doing rather than what they’re superficially about, and so that “price of talking” theme running through “SPYB!” has stuck with me since seeing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival more than the initial feeling I had of, “well, I’ve really learned nothing about Palin from this movie, so it’s pointless.” Since he first put himself in front of the camera more than twenty years ago, Broomfield’s works have been primarily about the filmmaking process and the difficulty of getting anything conclusive out of the controversial subjects he tackles. There’s nothing wrong with this meta sort of reflexive investigation or experiment-based documentary if done right (see “Roger and Me,” “GasLand,” “Super Size Me” and “Paul Williams: Still Alive” for great examples since Broomfield began his first-person style). And when his brand of filmmaking becomes problematic, whether with his ethically debatable on-camera pay-offs or his complicated relationships with his subjects (see his two films on Aileen Wuornos), is when it’s at its most interesting.
Nothing in “SPYB!” is more revealing or fascinating about the mode, or even about Broomfield’s specific shtick or personality within it, than what we’ve seen in his past efforts. However, some of those problematic practices he’s known for do take noteworthy turns. At one point he films himself on the phone with a representative for Levi Johnston in an attempt to get an interview, and the fee is outrageous and hardly something only Broomfield would face as a filmmaker or journalist. We meet people who will talk, many of whom have already faced negative effects of doing so prior to speaking about Palin here, and on the other side we see how Broomfield pays a price of his own by talking to these people (and possibly by making a doc like this at all). It becomes clear the impossibility of not just getting the cooperation of Palin directly but of making a fair and balanced film about her. No matter what, certain viewers (and especially those who won’t view it) will see “SPYB!” as a hit piece, a negative portrait. But the “you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t” conundrum of reaching out to this or that side of a story is key in many documentaries, only to a heightened, more noticeable degree here.
There is something of value here, you betcha. Just perhaps not what most of you will be looking for.
“Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” is now playing in NYC and LA.
Recommended If You Like: Nick Broomfield’s films between 1988 and 2003; “Roger and Me”; “The Daily Show”