Film review: The Undefeated

The Undefeated gives audiences a lengthy look at the case for Sarah Palin as a substantive reformer in politics.  The film introduces itself as “inspired by” Palin’s memoir Going Rogue, and it clearly follows the narrative of the book to walk audiences from Palin’s working-class roots as a young mother to her rise to the political major leagues.  The substantive message of The Undefeated succeeds in demonstrating that Palin is no “Caribou Barbie,” as filmmaker Stephen Bannon told the Daily Caller, but that she is a serious reformer and tough, accomplished politician.  Unfortunately, the message gets somewhat buried by Bannon’s chaotic and distracting soundtrack, and a visual style much more suited to campaign ads than longer-form filmmaking.

On substance, the material is both compelling and detailed.  Bannon spends the first 90 minutes of the film on Palin’s accomplishments in Alaska, especially focusing on energy policy and government reform — which in Alaska are necessarily linked to each other.  For those unfamiliar with the specifics of Palin’s records as Wasilla’s mayor and Alaska’s governor, The Undefeated provides the background context for fights against the political establishment and oil-industry lobbyists that funded it.  In some ways, the early part of the film makes a case for Palin the moderate, as a pragmatist less interested in ideology than in results.

The remainder of the film briefly addresses Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential campaign, but mainly focuses on her post-campaign career.  The film argues, effectively, that political opponents implemented a strategy against Palin to bankrupt her with legal bills from defending herself from frivolous ethics complaints, and explains her decision to resign.  If Palin chooses to run for higher office now or in the future, she has to make the case that resignation was her only option, both personally and politically, and the film takes enough time to demonstrate the trap in which Palin found herself in 2009.

Finally, the film addresses the rise of the Tea Party as an organic movement, inspired by a rant from Rick Santelli, and Palin’s ascendency in it.  The film’s first 90 minutes provide the necessary context to understand how natural a fit Palin was for that role.  She started her career as an ordinary citizen motivated to reform government and make it work for taxpayers rather than entrenched elites.  Her success in inspiring voters to turn out Democrats in Washington proved her power in 2010, and the “coda” to the film — titled “Children of the Revolution” — compares her explicitly to Ronald Reagan as a transformative political figure.

Clearly, the film is not intended as an arms-length documentary, and shouldn’t be evaluated in that sense.  Bannon obviously wants to make an impassioned argument in The Undefeated for Palin as a serious candidate, and the substance of the film makes a good case.  It doesn’t do so through Michael Moore-like editing traps of interviews, but through a building an argument on the merits of Palin’s record, primarily in the first 90 minutes.

Unfortunately, much about the film distracts from Bannon’s argument.  It’s a terribly flawed film, especially in its sound editing.  The soundtrack music frequently battles the narration and interviews, much too loud throughout almost all of the film.  Most of the music itself is simply unpleasant, a cacophonous blend of bad orchestration in some areas, annoying techno in others, and operatic arias mixing with military music towards the end.  It’s almost impossible to get focused on the substance when the music repeatedly intrudes on interviews and narration to the point where the viewer has to consciously try to ignore it. At some points, the person talking in the film can’t be heard.

The visual presentation is almost as bad, although I’ll admit I’m no fan of quick-edit style anyway; those who do like it will not be as bothered as I was by it.  The visual style is more suited to one-minute, quick-cut campaign spots than a film that lasts for more than two hours.  People who appear in the film as commentators, like Mark Levin, Andrew Breitbart, Tammy Bruce, and Meghan Stapleton, have their images jumping around on screen constantly, changing from straightforward color to overexposed monochrome and back again, against harsh white backgrounds.  The clip choices were strange, especially for a documentary, regardless of editing style.  Interesting archive footage featuring Palin alternates with stock nature footage, acted vignettes such as sand being shoveled onto someone’s face on a beach, artistic representations of cigar-chomping politicians in back rooms, lions taking down a zebra and munching on it for dinner, and so on.  I’d guess the average shot length has to be somewhere around three or four seconds.  It reminded me of the cable-TV series Dream On, and not in a good way. Like the soundtrack, the overall effect is decidedly unpleasant.

Much has been made of the film’s length.  If the other technical issues didn’t distract from the message, the running time might not be much of a problem, but as it is, only those who already passionately support Palin are likely to stick around for the whole movie — most of whom already know the background from Going Rogue.  Those who work past the distractions will get a good sense of Palin’s track record, accomplishments, and political sense, but the very people Bannon might want to reach with The Undefeated will probably not give it a chance to make its case.

Matt Lewis gave The Undefeated a good review yesterday for the Daily Caller and Jim Geraghty did likewise for National Review, while the New York Post’s Kyle Smith ripped it to shreds.  Put me in the middle; I’m with Matt and Jim on the substance, and with Smith on the presentation.  The message and the argument are well-made, but the film itself is too frustrating to focus on either.  In better hands, The Undefeated might have been a powerful force to reconnect Palin skeptics to the gutsy suburban mom turned fearless reformer we met in 2008, and it’s an opportunity missed.

Update: I’ve been asked by a couple of people on e-mail and in the comments whether this was a rough cut or the final edition.  This was a rough cut, but it’s also the cut they’ve sent to screeners and critics, so it can’t be far off from what they intend.  Maybe they will re-edit this, or at least the soundtrack, before its theatrical release.