It’s almost impossible to watch the first few minutes of a new documentary about Sarah Palin and not flinch a little at the bile unleashed on an elected official who was a virtual unknown until Sen. John McCain plucked her from obscurity in 2008.
Madonna, onstage at Madison Square Garden, describes Palin with an epithet. Pamela Anderson, on a red carpet, says, “I can’t stand her,” and follows up with a vulgarity. A group of men wear T-shirts describing Palin with a vile four-letter word.
The vituperation is similar to what Hillary Rodham Clinton experienced when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and earlier. But sexism is not the topic, only the entry point, of “The Undefeated.”
It is a two-hour encomium to Palin, a zero-warts version of her trajectory from Wasilla mayor to Alaska governor. It will be screened this summer at large conservative gatherings, and is to open theatrically July 15 in small and medium markets such as Denver, Phoenix and Orlando, Fla. The filmmaker, Stephen K. Bannon of Laguna Beach, hopes it will also appeal to moderates — and perhaps even liberals — curious about the rise of one of the country’s most polarizing political figures.
“The American people are fair and decent,” Bannon said in an interview after a recent screening near Times Square. “She’s the most media-saturated woman in the world, but her story is hiding in plain sight.”
Interest in Palin is acute on both sides of the political divide. Acclaimed documentarian Nick Broomfield is finishing up a Palin film that is expected to be a counterpoint to the hagiographic tone of “The Undefeated.”
Incorporating previously unseen footage from her childhood and early years as an elected official, “The Undefeated” focuses on Palin’s rise to prominence in Alaska as a Republican operating outside the party’s traditional men’s club power structure.
Once she became governor, she worked across party lines to renegotiate deals with oil companies, bringing in billions of dollars of new revenue for the state. She pushed through legislation for a natural gas pipeline that was hailed at the time as a major breakthrough (though it has yet to materialize, and may never be built). The film portrays her as leading an effort to force Exxon Mobil to drill an oil field it had leased from the state for 30 years. All those achievements have mixed legacies, but the film does not explore them.
“It’s a uniquely American story,” Bannon said. “But it’s not tied to whether she runs for president or not. It’s a bio-pic.”
The film does not mention the ethics investigation into whether Palin acted improperly when she fired her public safety commissioner. (She was within her rights to fire the commissioner, the ethics panel found, but had abused her power as governor by trying to get him to fire her former brother-in-law, a state trooper.) Bannon said he steered clear of the issue because it has already been covered at length in the national media.
The last part of the film focuses on Palin as a “tea party” hero, with comments from conservative agitators like Andrew Breitbart, who questions the manhood of GOP leaders for not defending Palin after the 2008 election.
The movie’s release comes on the heels of Palin’s “One Nation” bus tour, which ended in New Hampshire when Palin attended a clambake on the same day Mitt Romney declared his presidential candidacy a few miles away.
Though Bannon has shown the movie to many political journalists and pundits, he has screened it for only one mainstream film critic, Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who trashed it.
“Its tone is an excruciating combination of bombast and whining,” Smith wrote. “It’s so outlandishly partisan that it makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.”
Bannon said he was unfazed. “We didn’t panic,” he said. “I am not worried about its merits as a movie.”
Yet Bannon is a businessman, and insists the movie is a commercial venture. Chairman of IMI Exchange, the largest trader of virtual currency for video games, he is a Harvard-trained former Goldman Sachs banker.
He is a bearish, bearded former naval officer, and his daughter, Maureen, a West Point graduate, is serving in Iraq.
Bannon has become well-known to tea party conservatives as the director of last year’s “Fire from the Heartland,” which chronicled the role of women in the rise of the conservative movement. His “Generation Zero,” also released in 2010, told the tale of the economic meltdown from the conservative point of view.
For both movies, he collaborated with Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group whose effort to show an anti-Hillary Clinton film prompted a landmark Supreme Court ruling that barred limits on corporate or union funding of independent political broadcasts.
Last year, after the midterm election, Bannon said, he was approached by Palin aides Rebecca Mansour and Tim Crawford, who wanted to know whether he was interested in making YouTube videos about Palin and her Alaska record.
“I said, ‘I have a better idea,’ ” Bannon said. If Palin would cooperate — providing new biographical material such as home video, as well as access to her inner circle of Alaska aides — he and his producing partner, Glenn Bracken Evans, would put up $1 million to make the film.
Except for archival and news footage, Palin does not appear in “The Undefeated,” but narrates some portions of the film, reading from her 2009 biography, “Going Rogue.” She told reporters during her bus tour that she had seen it and was “blown away.”
Palin supporters are looking forward to seeing “The Undefeated.”
“It’s targeted at undecided folks who have a sense of disquiet about what’s going on in the country and are not really sure what’s at stake,” said Peter Singleton, a California lawyer who has spent the last several months quietly building contacts for Palin in Iowa, where the first nominating contest of the 2012 presidential campaign will take place.
As to whether Republicans will be offended at the movie’s critical portrayal of the party establishment, Singleton replied: “I don’t think it will upset a whole lot of people. Most of the base feels that way.”