GOP Presidential Primary

Palin on the big screen

A documentary film about Sarah Palin set to be released next month is fueling more speculation that she is edging closer to jumping into the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

The nearly two-hour long film, titled “The Undefeated,” portrays Palin’s time as Alaska’s governor in a positive light and touts her as a dynamic, compelling voice for the conservative cause on par with Ronald Reagan. 

{mosads}The film, which is divided into three acts, shifts the narrative surrounding Palin away from some of the more controversial episodes from her political career: her questions about President Obama’s birth certificate, the so-called “Troopergate” scandal and her use of the term “blood libel” during the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

Instead, it builds a positive story arc of Palin’s life in the public eye.

An outsider, Palin climbs up Alaska’s political ranks and along the way evolves into tough “Mama Grizzly” willing to fight for her beliefs, according to the film. The word “courage” is frequently used to describe her willingness to shake up the status quo; whether Palin is taking on corrupt oil executives and politicians, liberals, the media and the elites within her own party.

Conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, who created the film, provided private screenings for reporters last week at a small studio in Arlington, Va., just outside the nation’s capital. 

Sensing Palin’s lightning-rod image, Bannon said he anticipates “The Undefeated” will be, the “most controversial film of the year.”

The screenings were held as Palin traveled on her closely watched bus tour to historic sites up and down the East Coast, including a stop the first in the nation primary state of New Hampshire. 

Palin said Sunday she her chances of running for the Republican nomination in 2012 were “right in the middle.”

Bannon said that the film will be initially released in July in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the sites of the first four GOP primary and caucus contests. A wider release will come later.

What effect the movie’s release will have on the general public’s opinion of Palin is hard to estimate. She is almost universally known – a recent Gallup poll found her name recognition at 95 percent among Republicans – and neither her fervent supporters nor her equally fervent detractors are likely to change their minds.

Bannon said his idea for the film sprouted when Palin aides Rebcca Mansour and Tim Crawford approached him following the 2010 elections and asked him to produce several short videos that tout her accomplishments during her term as governor and explain her controversial decision to resign in 2009, following her defeat as the vice presidential nominee on the 2008 GOP ticket.

Bannon, whose documentary “Generation Zero” was a big hit with the Tea Party movement, instead set out to make a feature-length film about Palin’s political career and his Victory Film Group fronted $1 million for its production.

While Bannon said Palin had no editorial role in the film, and that he has only met her once in person, he obtained access to Palin’s allies in Alaska with the help of members of her current and former staff, including her former-spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton.  


No new footage of Palin appears in the film and Bannon did not conduct interviews with her. Instead, she appears in newscasts and other video from key points in her political career, like her maiden speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008, which is featured prominently throughout the documentary.

Palin voice runs over parts of the film, but Bannon purchased the audio rights her memoir Going Rogue, then sprinkling parts of the recording throughout the film. 

Even though Bannon stressed that Palin did not have an editorial role in the movie, it undoubtedly frames her as a protagonist and heroine.

Palin saw a rough cut of the film with her husband Todd in Phoenix, Ariz., and she told Fox News’s Greta van Susteren last week that “it blew me away.”

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The film seemed to have an endless supply of anecdotes to paint a positive picture of the former governor’s rise.

Palin identifies the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as the as the spark that lit her interest in politics.

“I can see that tragedy planted a seed in me,” Palin says.

Later as governor, one supporter recalls that Palin hung in her office a photo from the Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” whose protagonist is a lonely political reformer.

{mosads}A seminal moment of the second act shapes Palin’s image as a political fighter. Stapleton says that when she worked for Palin she witnessed her stare down an oil executive who threatened her, telling her “you don’t know who you’re messing with.”

For 35 minutes, the film goes into heavy detail about Palin’s energy, ethics and budget policies and how she worked across party lines to accomplish her goals. 

Though lengthy and at times dry, Bannon defends the segment as necessary for the viewer to have a sense of “catharsis” for Palin’s transformation into a national figure and the attacks she endured along the way.

Bannon describes the film as an “anti-Horatio Alger tale,” since her rags to riches story doesn’t involve kowtowing to elites.

“She’s not looking for a mentor, she’s going to do it her own way,” he said.

The film also plays up the long history of attacks against Palin, especially those that go at her gender.

The documentary begins with Palin’s introduction as the vice presidential nominee, but then quickly shifts to flash a series of clips depicting profane attacks Palin endured during the 2008 campaign from celebrities and media figures like Rosie O’Donnell, Matt Damon, Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Tracy Morgan and Louis C.K.

John Stein, the Wasilla, Alaska, mayor whom she defeated in 1996, refers to her as a “Spice Girl” who shops at Nordstrom during their 1999 rematch, which she won with 75 percent of the vote. 

Later, a clip is shown of MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews dismissing Palin as a Neiman Marcus shopper.

The attacks, though, seem to make Palin stronger. She is portrayed as an overwhelmingly positive force for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, using her dynamism and folksy appeal to motivate voters.

The only time the political attacks appear to have gotten to her was when she resigned her governorship in 2009. The film shows excerpts of her resignation speech, when she says ethics complaints filed against her have hurt her ability to do her job.

Stapleton calls the incident a “tragic” result of her political opponents using “Saul Alinsky tactics” against her as a result of her decision to run for vice president. (Alinsky’s book “Rules for Radicals” is a how-to guide for political organizing.)

Palin’s allies blame the attacks on a top-down effort by Democrats to discredit her because she poses an “existential threat,” as conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart puts it in the film.

Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin frames Palin as the next Reagan, a conservative icon laying out an agenda for a new generation of the party. But the problem is that the GOP establishment views her with suspicion and is unwilling to defend her against liberal attacks, he claims.

One of the most politically stunning moments of the film comes when Levin rails against the party establishment as images of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are flashed on-screen.

Breitbart also lashes out at the Republican elite for failing to defend Palin.

“Men no longer have a sense of chivalry,” he says. They are “eunuchs who have run as men but who aren’t men.”

Still, Palin comes out ahead, according to the film’s narrative. It highlights Palin’s combative speech at a recent Wisconsin Tea Party rally. One line is likely to entice political observers looking for clues regarding whether she’ll run for president: “Game on.”

While the film and Palin’s bus tour have fueled rampant speculation that she is preparing a bid, other signs exist that suggest she won’t run.

Last week, Palin met with Fox News executives including network president Roger Ailes, during her swing through New York and emerged from the conclave with her contract as a paid contributor intact.

Fox News suspended the contracts of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as they moved closer to becoming official candidates.

Bannon, an unabashed Palin fan, says that it would be great if she “engages” in the campaign, but said that he doesn’t know whether she will run and did not intend the film to be a plea for her to jump into the race.

Either way, he wants to the 2012 presidential primary to be a competitive race between two wings of the GOP.

“It’s very important for Republicans to have a primary like 1976,” when Reagan posed a strong primary challenge to the eventual nominee, Gerald Ford. “[It needs to be] a hard-fought battle between the establishment and the conservative grassroots.”

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