If you’d paid no attention to political news in the past three years and had never seen Roger and Me, maybe Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s Sarah Palin: You Betcha! might seem fresh. As it is, this slight, sometimes amusing documentary is familiar in too many ways, from yesterday’s facts to the film’s Michael Moore-ish structure, which has Broomfield chasing after a Palin interview from Alaska to Arizona and points in between.
Broomfield’s voiceover says he wants “to find the real Sarah Palin,” which is exactly what she – and to be fair almost every other politician – is invested in not letting the public see. What he does instead is create a very convincing if unsurprising portrait of Palin as the ultimate Mean Girl, whose approach to politics and the world has never grown past her days as the “popular pre-teen” who calls you her best friend until you disagree with her and become her life-long enemy.
He travels first to icy Wasilla, looking like a parody of an Alaskan in a red-and-black checkered jacket and a hat with earflaps, carrying a giant microphone instead of a rifle. He gets Palins’ parents to invite him into their kitchen, and more interestingly their yard, where we glimpse Palin’s father’s collection of antlers. (Wasilla might actually be more foreign to most of us than Russia.)
We learn nothing about her character - she was a competitive child! – but can observe that the parents are more masterful at handling the press than she is, as they cheerfully squirm away from questions with more grace than their angry, blame-the-media-daughter.
Most of Palins’ friends refuse to talk, so Broomfield finds some rivals. They include the former president of Alaska’s Senate, who says she was once planning a book of interviews about Palin called Under the Bus, because that’s the way Palin treats people. As a politician, the vindictive Palin finally had the leverage to do some real damage. But we’ve known most of this for a while, and don’t need to revisit the Troopergate scandal, in which the newly-elected Governor Palin was accused of trying to get her ex-brother-in-law the Alaskan trooper fired.
There are a few revealing glimpses here. Broomfield tries to get an interview with Levi Johnston, and is told by Johnston’s manager that it will cost him $20,000. Broomfield had offered $500. That interview never happened.
Neither did an interview with Palin, even though he travels to bookstore signings and at one of them politely makes his request. When he says he’s making a documentary, you can see a look of horror flash across Palin's face beneath the frozen smile, even though she chirps, “I betcha I could do that.”
And at a Palin talk in a huge auditorium, Broomfield resorts to using a bullhorn (a trademark Michael Moore move) to question the departing crowd, but the bullhorn malfunctions. So does the flat scene, but then comic episodes have never been Broomfield’s strength. He has done trenchant documentaries, including Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which is why Sarah Palin is so disappointing.
The film was made for Chanel 4 in Britain, where they have their own pressing political issues to distract them, so maybe this primer on Sarah Palin will be more useful there. Americans don’t have much reason to notice, even if the Mean Girl does decide to run for Class President.