It’s a happy 79th birthday today to filmmaker Robert Benton, who’s a great writer and a class act to boot.
A small pleasure, at least, that Sarah Palin‘s rise to national prominence has come about in this modern day and age, for were it much earlier the amount of ink spilled and trees razed would have had a much more measurable and even greater detrimental environmental impact. As is, the erstwhile Alaskan governor and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee already seems to exert a death-grip on the nation’s psyche, even with her hazily defined motivations, ambiguous ambitions and well-practiced fence-sitting. Palin is many things to many people, and very few of them without much passion or depth of feeling.
For his new documentary, Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, then, Nick Broomfield decamps to her hometown of Wasilla, donning an Alaskan starter kit — red checkered jacket, boots and hat replete with ear-flaps — to go along with his mini-boom mic and genial investigatory noodling. (Co-director Joan Churchill, meanwhile, operates the camera, allowing the pair to function in guerilla-like fashion.) Showing much more of an inquisitive mindset about her, her upbringing and what makes her tick than Palin herself has seemingly ever shown about the world around her, Broomfield’s eye-opening film re-treads a lot of known ground about Palin, but also drags out into the full light of day the danger of her particular brand of sad, self-centered, desperate paranoia.
Wasilla is a guns-and-God town of little more than 8,000 people with (if Broomfield’s assertion is correct) a fairly astounding 77 churches. Early on, Broomfield’s quest to land an interview with Palin herself seems off on the right foot; he talks to Sarah’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, and the former shows him how he’s trained his dog to fetch antlers instead of bones or tennis balls. The more Broomfield chats with a small handful of detractors and digs into the Palins’ evangelist church, Assembly of God, though, the more constricted the flow of information and forthcoming opinion becomes. Apart from a very small handful, almost everyone in town is reluctant to speak about Palin, it seems; those with a potential axe to grind out of fear of retribution, and those who love her most because it would apparently be considered treasonous to speak to someone who allowed for the possibility of a viewpoint at odds with theirs.
While in large part a sort of on-the-ground travelogue of (largely unsuccessful) interview chasing, Broomfield and Churchill also tell in chronological fashion the story of Palin’s rise — how she quickly cast away her political mentor, former Wasilla mayor John Stein, and soon embarked on a firing spree of public officials who disagreed with her on even the smallest of issues. Through it all, she flogged hot-button social issues as relevant, and later, in 2006, she positioned herself in savvy fashion between two bickering fellow Republicans, to score a primary upset.
Broomfield is part provocateur, part bumbling professor. He injects himself into the proceedings, but in a manner that lacks the blunt-force emotionalism of someone like Michael Moore. The distinctive quality of Broomfield’s voice — which conveys an occasional sarcasm but mostly an ever-present bemusement with his own stumbling, shrugging exploration — gives his movie a comfortable, lived-in feeling and sense of fair play, even though there’s undeniably something of a bent. While it’s edited into a cogent narrative, one feels that Broomfield mostly heads out each day of a shoot armed less with research, and more with an eager desire to see what sorts of reactions he can capture, no matter where the particular opinions fall.
When Broomfield touches, in passing, on Palin’s depression upon her return to the governorship of Alaska in the wake of the 2008 election, it’s hard not to feel at least a small pang of empathetic sorrow for the subject. Would that Broomfield were allowed to mine this seam more, through the participation of those close to and sympathetic to the Palins. Instead, what one sees manifested, time and again, is a pattern of emotional retrenchment and vindictive lashing out. In Sarah Palin’s world, nothing can be her fault; after all, she is chosen, she is anointed.
Her own former campaign managers and legislative directors paint a portrait of Palin as an air-quote leader who made decisions based on perceived threats and disrespect, wielding governmental power as a cudgel for score-settling of the sort given to a popular teenage girl’s flight-of-fancy. The sheltered and simplistic nature of this worldview is one thing, but Palin is forever mining for nuggets of victimization that can then be peddled into inflammatory and/or ridiculous rhetoric (“death panels,” “don’t retreat, reload,” “blood libel”), and then used as table scraps to further feed a narrative of persecution, and increase her cult of aggrieved identification. There is nothing in Palin’s world that is merely a misguided idea or a different way by which to achieve the same means of a greater good and fairer world — only evils to be fought and enemies to be vanquished. In the end, that is the true horror — not Palin herself. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Content Media/Channel 4 Films/Awakening Films, unrated, 91 minutes)