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Sarah Palin in Iowa for premiere of 'The Undefeated,' a new chapter in the politics of documentaries

June 27, 2011 |  6:06 am


Sarah Palin heads to Iowa on Tuesday, but whether or not electoral politics are involved is in the eye of the beholder.

Palin has to face jury duty in July in Alaska, but, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the former Alaska governor and her husband, Todd Palin, are first going to Pella, Iowa, for the June 28 premiere of "The Undefeated."

Filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon's documentary portrait of Palin and her political record goes into limited distribution by ARC Entertainment in AMC Theatres the week of July 15 (locally, it will be in the City of Orange, in Orange County).

Interestingly -- likely coincidentally -- President Obama will also be in Iowa on Tuesday, promoting manufacturing jobs in Bettendorf. No word whether the two have a date to split corn dogs, but we doubt it.

Approached by Palin's camp to produce short films for SarahPAC, Bannon decided instead.... independently produce and finance a feature-length documentary, retaining editorial and creative control. He did get the audio rights to Palin's book "Going Rogue," and used excerpts from her narration.

As Palin has yet to commit to a presidential run, the timing and location of this premiere in the earliest caucus state are bound to kick the speculation engine into high gear (not that it needs much gas to go when Palin is the subject).

"The Undefeated" is the latest in a string of documentaries about political figures. Below is a sampling of films -- complimentary and otherwise -- about prominent pols of our era.

"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama": HBO premiered this film, produced by actor Edward Norton, on Nov. 3, 2009, the one-year anniversary of the eve of the last presidential election. But the history of the film stretches back nearly a year before the current president announced his candidacy on Feb. 10, 2007, when filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams -- showing a good deal of political foresight -- began following the junior senator from Illinois.

Over the next 19 months, they traveled across the country with the Obama campaign, chronicling the experiences of the candidate, his family, staff and volunteers.

"Hillary: The Movie": Produced by the conservative nonprofit organization Citizens United, this 2008 documentary, sharply critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, was scheduled for cable pay-per-view offering just before the Democratic primaries opened in January 2008.  Hillary-Clinton

But a federal court in Washington agreed with the arguments of the Federal Election Commission that provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act -- a 2002 law regulating the financing of political campaigns -- prevented the film from being shown at that time.

This eventually led to a Supreme Court case -- Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission -- which resulted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Citizens United.

In turn, this led to a testy moment at the 2010 State of the Union address, when Obama criticized the ruling with the justices sitting just below the podium. Justice Samuel Alito visibly registered disagreement.

As it turns out, Sen. Clinton lost her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination anyway and is Obama's secretary of State.

"The War Room": Speaking of the Clintons, this 1993 film from directors Chris Hegedus and acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker tracked the successful 1992 presidential bid by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

The focus of the film is not Clinton himself, but lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopolous.

In the years since the campaign, the colorful Carville married Republican strategist Mary Matalin, and has consulted with candidates and worked as a TV political analyst. He now teaches at Tulane University.

The perpetually boyish Stephanopolous transmogrified from political flack to political journalist, and is now ABC News' chief political correspondent and an anchor of "Good Morning America."

"Journeys With George": Perhaps the most personally revealing look at President George W. Bush is this often humorous 2003 film by documentarian Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi) and Aaron Lubarsky, shot over more than a year leading up to the 2000 presidential election.

Working as a producer for NBC, Pelosi and her hand-held camcorder gave an inside view of the Bush campaign, with remarkable and often relaxed access to the candidate. She also examined the relationship between presidential contenders and the ever-present press corps.

Jimmy-Rosalynn-Carter-Atlanta-Braves "The Man From Plains": Jonathan Demme, an Academy Award-winner for directing "The Silence of the Lambs," wrote and directed this 2007 film, following former President Carter on a tour around the U.S. to promote his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

In a statement on the official website, Demme says he has "always held President Carter in high esteem."

Demme offers an intimate portrait of the former Georgia governor while also showing his public face discussing his book with multiple media outlets.

"Nixon in the Den": Available to watch on YouTube, this British documentary was first broadcast on BBC Four in June 2010. Historian David Reynolds examines both the public record and private life of President Nixon.

Reynolds argues in defense of Nixon's international accomplishments with China and the Soviet Union, while also examining the domestic crimes and coverups that ultimately torpedoed his presidency.

There's also a documentary called "Declassified: Nixon in China," an Emmy-winning collaboration  Newt-and-Callista-Gingrich-launching-campaign-Dubuque-Iowa-May-2010 between ABC News Productions and the National Security Archives. It draws on previously secret documents from the U.S. and China pertaining to Nixon's efforts to open a dialogue.

"Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny": There are a lot of Reagan films -- including "Reagan," which debuted on HBO in February 2011, in conjunction with the late president's 100th birthday -- but this one is noteworthy in that the executive producers and hosts are Newt and Callista Gingrich, one of whom is seeking President Reagan's old job.

Among the interviewees are Reagan's son Michael and leaders Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Lech Walesa of Poland.

It's also a production of Citizens United, the folks behind the Hillary Clinton film above. One assumes this film is kinder to its subject matter than its predecessor.


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-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment-news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH

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Photos: Mark Hirsch / Getty Images North America (Todd and Sarah Palin); Mark Wilson / Getty Images North America (Hillary Clinton); Jamie Squire / Getty Images North America (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter); Mark Hirsch / Getty Images North America (Newt and Callista Gingrich).