Sarah Palin got a close-up of sorts with this summer's "The Undefeated," Stephen Bannon's adoring portrait of the former vice presidential candidate. Now in the new film "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!," acclaimed British documentarian Nick Broomfield and partner Joan Churchill offer the antithesis — a cutting documentary that aims to expose Palin as petty and vindictive.
The movie, which premiered for the media Friday afternoon at the Toronto International Film Festival, doesn't offer a lot of new details for those who've closely followed Palin's career over the last three years. But a distinct portrait does emerge from Broomfield and Churchill's dozens of interviews, many in and around her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska.
Broomfield flirts a little bit with the depiction of Palin as an empty vessel, trotting out some of the more well-known charges about her lack of historical and geographic sophistication. But he's mainly concerned with how the ex-governor works and gets along with other people.
Although the filmmakers grab a quick early interview with Chuck and Sally Heath, Palin's parents, who remain firmly in her corner, most of the attention goes to various professional and personal associates in Alaska, where she of course served as mayor and governor before her emergence on the national scene. Many of these confidantes have lost their warm feelings for her, and then some. Broomfield also devotes a significant amount of time to an interview with Alaska state trooper Mike Wooten, Palin's former brother-in-law, whom the governor allegedly tried to get fired after his marriage to Palin's sister broke up.
The sum total of Broomfield's research — whether with a former Wasilla mayor (and Palin mentor), a fired legislative advisor or a town gossip who was once close to the Palins and Heaths — is of a personality who can turn quickly and decisively against her allies and sees the world in strict with-us-or-against-us terms.
What first might strike some filmgoers as a matter of standard political maneuvering soon becomes more pathological. As Stephen Schmidt, the John McCain advisor who initially advised choosing Palin for the ticket but wound up souring on her, says, Palin has "40 or 50 or 60 feuds" going at any one time.
Broomfield's approach of talking mainly to enemies (perhaps not by design, since her current allies were surely not running around giving interviews to him) can give the sense of a stacked deck. Still, the very fact at Palin has so many enemies in the first place, and from within her own campaign and party, is telling. (Broomfield juxtaposes a lot of these interviews with an attempt to sketch out Palin's belief system from her church and other affiliations; those moments pack less punch.)
When it comes to landing the big fish, Broomfield tends to practice a Michael Moore approach--he turns abortive attempts to land an interview into its a kind of theater. He did this to hilarious effect with Courtney Love in the 1998 cult hit "Kurt and Courtney" before eventually landing a damning on-the-fly interview.
Here, using the same clueless deadpan that elicited laughter a number of times from the Toronto audience, Broomfield succeeds in meeting her in public forums a few times. But he only gets one question off, at an event in Oklahoma where he shouts from the back of the room a question about whether she believes her political career is over (clip below). Palin hesitates, then gestures to all the people who've attended as counter-evidence.
Still, it's hard to escape the the feeling that, for all its entertainment value and even some of its insight, "Sarah Palin: You Betcha" is a little bit out of date; it's quickly clear Palin doesn't have nearly the political stature she did when this film was being shot. Broomfield seems to acknowledge this at the end even as he expresses worry over what a Palin White House would look like. We don't suppose he'll be working on a Rick Perry film anytime soon?
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Director Nick Broomfield in front of an image of Sarah Palin. Credit: Toronto International Film Festival.