Nick Broomfield, the conspiratorial documentarian behind “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie & Tupac,” makes no apologies about using suppositions and hearsay in his quest for a special kind of truth. The problem with his insipidly titled “Sarah Palin – You Betcha!,” co-directed with Joan Churchill, has nothing to do with the morality of his technique and instead lies with a lack of new ideas. Palin hasn’t exactly faded from view since her sudden arrival on the world stage during the 2008 election, but with the way Broomfield treats her as fresh material for an exposé of her Wasilla roots, one might think she did.
Broomfield’s project is plagued by two flawed assumptions: That his audience, which obviously excludes devout Tea Party members and other dedicated Palinbots by default, hasn’t heard the horror stories about her power lust and governmental mismanagement; and that any member of that theoretical audience would actually care to sit through something like this again. He’s wrong on both counts. Part clip show, part Alaska travelogue by a plucky Brit faking his naivete, “Sarah Palin” lacks a coherent reason to exist.
Fortunately, Broomfield’s a likable figure and his on-camera presence throughout “Sarah Palin” keeps the movie from devolving into pure redundant blather. He casts himself as a genuinely curious Channel 4 reporter heading to Alaska in search of unraveling the Palin myth. Roaming from the former governor’s parents home to the company of neighbors, friends, and friends-turned enemies, a boom mic constantly hovers beneath his intentionally dopey smile as he skates across the icy landscape. It might be more rewarding to read interviews with generally erudite Broomfield than watch him clown around in this material.
At first, Broomfield expresses genuine interest in learning more about Palin’s past, gathering anecdotal tidbits from her apparently earnest father, Chuck Heath, as well as former classmates and local supporters. But when his attempts to arrange for a sit-down interview with his title character continually run afoul, Broomfield gradually shifts to a critical history of Palin’s mayoral and governmental records, citing Alaska’s senate president and other disappointed parties willing to speak on the record about their experiences. Even then, his access is extremely limited. (Unable to afford Levi Johnston’s interview rate, he settles for the accidental celebrity’s sister.)
Naturally, the majority of Broomfield’s subjects willing to discuss Palin in a negative light have some sort of vendetta against her. These include Mike Woolen, the infamous victim of the troopergate scandal in which Palin may have fired the former employee after his divorce from the governor’s sister. However, even as Broomfield gathers these testimonies, his unifying thesis never goes deeper than the conviction that the mentality of a sociopath hides behind Palin’s eerie smile. “She’s like the most popular teenage girl,” sighs one estranged former colleague. What else is new?
Broomfield briefly alludes the open-ended possibility that Palin may eventually run for president, which implies that the project intends to work against that potential initiative (although he never states his goals). If that’s the case, his attacks are too cheap and insignificant to have any lasting impact. Going back to that intended audience: Anyone annoyed, threatened or infuriated by Palin’s lasting appeal will only grow more frustrated by Broomfield’s unconvincing case.
Unfortunately, the unabashed propagandistic outlook of that other Palin doc released this year, Stephen K. Bannon’s “Undefeated,” achieves its goal with much greater accuracy by engaging (albeit selectively) with Palin’s political platforms. Broomfield emphasizes her lack of competent leadership skills rather than the scarier agendas she represents, which suggests an attempt to rally against her in apolitical fashion. It’s neither fiery enough to make the point nor particularly illuminating to watch, primarily because he tries to construct a personal profile without the person in question.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already set for theatrical distribution by Freestyle Releasing in conjunction with a successful Kickstarter campaign, “Sarah Palin” might generate some decent word-of-mouth thanks to Broomfield’s existing reputation. However, few audiences are likely to feel very eager about this topic, and its greatest prospect are in ancillary markets.