Sunday, July 24, 2011

'The Undefeated'

I like politics and I know that many of the people that read this blog enjoy a good political debate as well. This documentary is clearly going to provoke some strong emotions on the part of viewers, regardless of the point on the political spectrum they fall. I want to talk about it as a movie first but it is a subject that is impossible to separate from from the medium. I have seen a number of documentaries that I have disagreed with politically, but the form that the filmaking took was clever and entertaining. I have also seen documentaries that are nothing more than a political agenda masquerading as films. "The Undefeated" falls into a middle ground for me. It is competently put together and it is a fascinating subject.  If however you are not interested in Sarah Palin at all, then the film is unlikely to keep your attention because it is so traditional in the way that the talking heads are overlapped with the visual images. This is a political film and not an entertainment. That might actually make it superior to a number of other movies because you are never in doubt about the viewpoint of the film maker.

The structure of the movie is simple. It is a chronological look at the political career of the most charismatic political figure on the public stage today. This is a woman that gets attention because she is expressing her views in a clear and interesting way, and she is not shy about who she is. The President was seen in his campaign as charismatic, but I think his charisma is largely a part of the symbolism he represented. As a speaker he is dry, long winded and has a tendency to talk in a condescending manner to his audience( although not nearly as condescending in tone as Al Gore). Palin's charisma is tied into her political philosophy true, but she has personality to burn and it shines on camera and on stage. This documentary uses clips of her speeches and narrative audio tracks from her book to give us an image of the person she is.  We get very limited images from any time before she was in the public arena. In large part the opening section of the movie is more about Alaska than Palin.

The issues that are outlined early on in the state's history, become focal points for the accomplishments of the Governor from the 49th state. There are ethics issues,oil issues and environmental issues that are the highlights of the terms that Palin served in Alaskan government service. So while the movie marches in a straight chronological line, those are the markers along the path that indicate where we are in the story. There is one element that is outside of this basic structure, and that is the opening sequence. For nearly two minutes we are subjected to a string of sound bites and video clips of pundits, celebrities and media figures saying the most vile things imaginable. They toss off the insults casually with little consequence, and the degree to which it becomes part of the political narrative of the media is astonishing. I thought the film might be focused on the way the political media has tried to erase her from the map. There is a John Ziegler film that covers that territory so I should probably seek it out. This movie focuses more on what Palin accomplished as a public servant. Politics is a background but government is the main focus.

Her time as Mayor of Wasilla is covered very briefly but in as much detail as you are likely to need. She was aggressive about growth, focused on limited government and she was re-elected by 75% of the voters in her town. A large portion of time is devoted to the Alaskan  Oil and Natural Resources Commission that she served on. There was quite a bit of corruption there and she rose to public attention statewide because she challenged the way that business was being done. The political enemies that she hurt the most were fellow Republicans. She is clearly not a political hack and is largely involved in this process to do the right thing by her fellow Alaskan citizens. She resigned from the job, which payed in the six figures, to an uncertain future, because she would not put up with the backroom deals that were short changing the citizens. Seven members of  Alaska government regulation agencies resigned in protest of the actions that the then Governor Frank Murkowski was taking in regard to oil company leases.  Later, several legislators were charged with public corruption by the F.B.I.. Palin's campaign for Governor was based largely on reform of these corrupt practices.

Her term as Governor is covered very completely by the documentary. It highlights the reforms she pursued and the substantial accomplishments she achieved. Her success was largely bi-partisan, with near unanimous support of changes from the Legislature. The complexities of the oil leasing business and the tax regulation system are explained in clear and concise segments of the movie. Everything leading up to the naming of her as a Vice Presidential nominee is pretty boiler plate history with a little bias in the manner of the storytelling.  This takes us two thirds of the way through the movie. We have had a largely mechanical description of her rise to power and the success she she made of that power. If it could be used for political purpose, that is not because it was cut in a dramatic way or elements of the story were changed to make it more dynamic. Any political use of the film up to this point would be the equivalent of taking a high school history documentary film and trying to turn it into a political message.

Once we get to the late summer of 2008, the nature of the movie shifts. It does become more clearly a political biography with a battling central figure. The first appearances of   conservative political commentators like Andrew Brietbart and Mark Levin, signal a shift to image building by the film makers. This is where the controversial stuff gets started and the connection to the Tea Party Movement is made. I think it is largely accurate in the conclusions that are reached, but here the agenda is much more deliberately political. If you want Sarah Palin to be presented as an effective political figure, I think it makes more sense to let the V.P. Acceptance speech and the Wisconsin speech on the labor unrest from last April do the talking for her. We can hear the radio folks most days of the week, let's watch Sarah work the crowd at a Tea Party Rally, talk to more of the people who make up that movement. We needed to hear from those candidates that she helped by her endorsements and appearances.  This is one of the places where the skills of the film makers are not up to their ambitions.

The cliches of documentaries are present in the movie in a number of  places. The music is frequently too urgent and dramatic in the background. It sounds unremittingly tense when all that is happening is people are on screen talking. There are a lot of talking heads and they are shot to build energy by pulling in and moving back or shifting from one side very quickly. It was quite annoying. I also don't get why they are all against a white background. They ought to be in their offices, on the steps of the state capitol, or sitting at the microphone in their studios. It seemed a weak film making choice to me. I did like the singing of the Minstrel Boy  hymn at the start and finish of the movie. That did set a tone of combativeness and resolve that the director wants to emphasize about Sarah Palin. There are many interesting transition and signpost images in the film. They work at signalling the subject but they sometimes take us out of whatever drama there is and remind us that this is a movie.

From a values perspective, I probably agree with Sarah Palin  ninety percent of the time or more. I never thought she was stupid but I know people who were convinced she was by the coverage she received in 2008. Her qualities as a foreign policy leader may be less than some, but they are certainly equal to the current occupant of the White House. This film attempts to show that Palin was also a competent and skilled public servant, and a critical voice for a segment of public opinion. It accomplishes that but it is unlikely that doubter will seek this out to discover for themselves her qualities. If you do get a chance to see it, "The Undefeated" is a effective but somewhat tame approach to selling Sarah Palin. I liked it a lot but I wish it had been better executed and I would not mind some red meat to go along with the meal.

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