Should the Left fear that "The Undefeated" will become a "Fahrenheit 9/11"-style juggernaut for the Right? Is Navy officer-turned-investment banker-turned-filmmaker Stephen Bannon the Michael Moore of the Tea Party movement?
Bannon certainly borrows from Moore's penchant for manipulation and omission. As Stuart Klawans once opined about Moore: "The worst that can reasonably be said about him is not that he lies in making his argument, but that he omits." Bannon doesn't fall far from the same tree.
In this Wall Street Journal Online interview, I talked to Bannon yesterday, who cited Moore as an influence, as he did Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein (independent of their politics), and he seemed to have an answer for most of the film's rhetorical sleights of hand.
Here's a list of some of the film's points of contention:
1. There's no mention of "Troopergate."
Bannon's argument is that he couldn't address everything about Palin's life in a 2-hour documentary. "The second act alone is over 45 minutes," he said, claiming that Troopergate was a media-manufactured event and a distraction from the real story.
2. There's no mention of any conflict with the John McCain camp.
Strange that a documentary that goes after Republicans as much as Democrats wouldn't go into the rumored internecine warfare between Palin and McCain, but Bannon claims, "John McCain was a tangential player, and as history will show, [the election] was really the beginning of the rise of Sarah Palin."
3. There's no evidence that attacks against Palin came from the Obama camp.
The film explicitly pins blame on the repeated attacks against Sarah Palin, recycled on cable news, on the Obama administration, but there's not one bit of proof to support the movie's claim. When I questioned Bannon, he said that Palin spokesperson Meg Stapleton believed it. "I think Meg's belief is that these attacks came from Barack Obama," he said, as if it made it fact.
4. If you do some digging, any number of questions could also be leveled against Palin's "accomplishments" and "meteoric rise" as a small-town mayor and governor of Alaska. I won't bore you with all the details—although the film does—but suffice it to say that the movie, unsurprisingly, doesn't tell the whole story about the Matanuska Diary or the Alaska Pipeline Project. It's not hard to find out more; just check out the Wikipedia entry on the 'governorship of Sarah Palin.'
It's this litany of accomplishments that really bogs the film down, and Bannon admits that he's taking a risk with a 45-minute second act that is essentially about economic issues and energy policy. Not exactly exciting stuff.
While the film begins with a lively montage (borrowed from the Michael Moore handbook of agit-pop filmmaking), which includes vitriolic criticisms of Palin from such individuals as Bill Maher and Matt Damon, and overall accomplishes one of Bannon's primary goals—to convey that Palin exists beyond the stereotype that she, herself, has cultivated, of the gosh-golly folksy Mama Grizzly Soccer Mom—the rest of the movie isn't compelling.
Whatever actually documented controversies might make for potential conflict—such as internecine battles with the John McCain camp, or even the Obama administration, or the protracted controversy known as "Troopergate"—are glossed over in favor of superficial unproven claims, and the most embarrassing array of archival and illustrative footage—a pack of lions attacking a zebra!--that eventually became the most fun part of the movie for me. I found myself wondering what sort of crazy stock images might pop up next.
Judging from my conversation with Bannon, I think this might have been intentional. He wants to grab the audience's attention and I guess he does. Collapsing bridges! Mushroom clouds! When Animals Attack! I kept thinking of Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty's found-footage classic "Atomic Café," but in the case of "The Undefeated," the irony is supplied by the viewer, not the filmmaker.
For me, the most shocking moment in "The Undefeated," however, comes with the appearance of a black person about two-thirds of the way through. I'm not sure if it's what Bannon had in mind when he wanted to seize the audience's attention, but the arrival of black conservative female activist Sonnie Johnson made me realize just how white everyone appears to be, in both Palin's Alaska and Bannon's Tea Party.
If you were planning to see "The Undefeated," I apologize for the spoiler.
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