Movie Review: “The Undefeated”

“The Undefeated” is a slick one hour and 50 minute version of those political convention hagiographies  (“A Man From Hope”), so it’s not exactly an objective take on its subject, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It’s just her and her friends “setting the record straight.”

Conservative documentarian Stephen K. Bannon (“Generation Zero”) makes a persuasive case that Palin was a more accomplished governor than the national media has ever let on and that she’s more of a “maverick” than we’ve been allowed to see. He captures some of the media firestorm that surrounded her upon her arrival on the national scene and the creation of her “media narrative” — naive, greedy, possibly corrupt and appealing to the nuttier elements of the GOP’s far right base. The film is designed to make her appear less alarming and as such, it works — until you start noticing what was left out.

Bannon uses Palin’s autobiography, “Going Rogue,” as both his inspiration and his structure, with snippets of her reading the audio book setting up the various “chapters” in this political story — “Act 1: The Servant’s Heart,” to “From Here I Can See November.”

Brannon accesses Alaskan TV news footage to show Palin’s early political career, her ongoing efforts to get “Big Oil” to drill in places where Exxon-Mobile had long had leases to do so, the natural gas pipeline she takes credit for (still un-built, which the film leaves out) and the corrupting power of oil over the state’s politicians before she took office. The coverage sampled here is overwhelmingly flattering.

In press conferences and interviews back then Palin comes off as earnest, politically savvy, a genuine populist whose down home nature and TV-ready good looks made her stand out in a big state with a tiny population.  Plainly, whatever her own blunders as she stumbled onto the national stage, the political portrait of her that emerged was too narrow. She became the equivalent of a reality TV star painted in sinister tones by her and her fans’ favorite bugaboo, “the liberal media.”

But everything in “The Undefeated” is loaded, from its choice of endorsements to the choice of extreme voices in those rare moments when she is criticized. An opening three minute barrage of bile lumps everyone who found her lacking into the same pile as profane anonymous Internet commenters, shock jocks and gadfly comedian Bill Maher. There’s Sharon Osborne. But where are the credible critics who questioned her qualifications?

Her political allies sing her praises and do most of her burnishing for her –  “Sarah’s a rock star” and “She’s an existential threat to the left.” But about these “endorsements –  They aren’t spontaneous question-and-answer sessions with a wide assortment of critics and colleagues. They are mostly Alaska acolytes who appear to be performing their testimonials in carefully staged and edited monologues directly to the camera.  Thus, “The Undefeated” plays like an infomercial.

And as such, it’s an infomercial of almost comical omissions. Here’s what ISN’T in “The Undefeated” — Palin’s many gaffes on the campaign trail in 2008,  gaffes which continue today, her deer in the headlights moments during debates, her disastrous Katie Couric interview and her cash-in-quick reality TV soap opera family. The movie skims over the reasons she quit her governor’s job just as the going got really tough and glosses over the flood of ethics complaints that dogged her. There is no “Bridge to Nowhere.” You leave out that stuff and it casts doubt on what you’ve chosen to include and how you may have slanted her Alaskan record.

Since Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, once made a documentary filled with Republicans who blamed the financial meltdown on assorted Democratic “liberal social policies” of the past 60 years and not on…Goldman Sachs — a healthy skepticism about his objectivity is in order.

The film rightly gives Palin much of the credit for the Tea Party movement she  opportunistically leapt onto in 2010. We see her pointing the finger at ethically challenged Alaska Republicans. But we don’t see Palin “standing with” the disgraced Senator Ted Stevens, just like any other party hack. The film misstates her popularity in Alaska and misleadingly twists energy data to convince us that what she did to push more drilling in Alaska is actually America’s energy independence solution.

And while there’s plenty of inspirational Tea Party footage scored with music to make you moist-eyed, there’s nothing about that group’s more controversial elements — the intolerance, conspiracy-mongering, the anti-intellectualism tinged with violent rhetoric.

There’s also no mention of Palin’s burgeoning media career — from “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” to her many connections to Fox News and the controversial commentator Glenn Beck. This is a far more credible reason for her quitting her governor’s job — cashing in. Afraid of how that looks?

There was a 1969 John Wayne movie which Rock Hudson led an exodus of unreconstructed Confederates as they fled south to Mexico rather than accept the government by Yankees in Washington at the end of the Civil War. Considering the audience this “Undefeated” is pandering to, that’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

MPAA Rating: PG-13, for brief strong language.

Cast: Sarah Palin, Tom Irwin, Marty Rutherford, Andrew Breitbart,  Con Bunde, Tammy Bruce

Credits: Stephen K. Bannon, written by Bannon and Sarah Palin., produced by Bannon. A Victory Films/ARC Entertainment release. Running time: 1:55

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