I sat there alone for 20 minutes, at which point an usher stuck his head in the door, gave me a quizzical smile, and said, “How come you’re not watching Harry Potter?”
by S.T. VanAirsdale
Customarily on Fridays, when a new movie reaches theaters over the howling, nose-pinching, and often very funny protests of the critical establishment, the saltiest of those responses are gathered here for your browsing pleasure. That’s given that there is enough of a sample, or that the stinker in question is intended for a broad enough audience for us to advise viewers of the open manhole in their path. And then… there’s the Sarah Palin documentary.
Since director Stephen K. Bannon’s The Undefeated was announced in May, nobody really expected the Palin-authorized effort to stretch much beyond hagiography. Which is fine: Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Palin is a valuable brand who transcends politics, and the cultural galvanizing that The Undefeated might conduct in Palin’s name could have significant influence if done right — if, say, Bannon eschewed all the reactive fervor of Palin’s peers and defenders and instead went on the offensive about leadership and ideology. After all, a beatifying, glorified slideshow like An Inconvenient Truth worked not because right-wing bogeyman Al Gore had legions of fans to make it an Oscar-winning hit (he couldn’t even carry his home state, Tennessee, in the 2000 presidential election) or because it really burrowed under the skin of the former senator and vice president. It was because Gore maxed out his post-political goodwill for a specific cause that, again, like it or not, transcended politics.
Believe it or not, that’s the Sarah Palin movie that critics and pundits alike sought from The Undefeated. “Plainly, whatever her own blunders as she stumbled onto the national stage, the political portrait of her that emerged was too narrow,” wrote Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel in what nevertheless turned out to be a frustrated pan. “I swear I gave The Undefeated a chance, because who wants to writhe in agony for two hours?” wrote confirmed liberal David Edelstein in his own review at Vulture. “I hoped that director Stephen K. Bannon would show a side of Sarah Palin I’d never seen — I thought it would be so cool if I could give the movie a rave.” And that even followed right-leaning Kyle Smith’s brutal dismissal of the film last month in the NY Post as “so outlandishly partisan that it makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.” (Smith was later disinvited from seeing the reportedly re-edited version of the film opening today; representatives for the film cite not his review, but having allegedly broke a review embargo.)
So is it fair to expect or anticipate something so specific from Bannon and The Undefeated? Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, this week’s grave reactions to the film suggest not bias, but rather the consequences of Bannon and Co. not even trying.
· “Bannon depicts Palin’s opponents as comic-book villains […] all united by their “hateful obsession” with Tearing Sarah Down. This cartoonish version of real life is paired with a just-as-caricatured view of Palin, who in this retelling is entirely without blemish, physical or political, and incapable of missteps. (Even the film’s title is a whitewashing—she was, in fact, The Defeated as John McCain’s running mate.)” — Anna Merlan, Village Voice
· “Once you realize the film is just going to be a string of encomiums against a backdrop of frantically edited archival material in which few shots are allowed to stay onscreen longer than three seconds, it’s clear that no meaningful analysis of the woman’s career or political agenda will be forthcoming.” — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
· “The first hour of The Undefeated, scrupulously attentive to Palin’s rise through state politics, is pretty rough going, a turgid primer in Alaska’s pipeline management and oil, gas and, yes, milk subsidies. The movie may tempt even the most ardent conservatives to emulate their idol’s tenure as Governor and walk out halfway through.” — Richard Corliss, Time
· “The film sticks to her political career, presumably with the thought that it will reinforce her accomplishments in the arena, but in the process, it perversely provides a reminder of that career’s limited scope. By the end of The Undefeated, Palin actually seems a more remote figure than at its start, a blank space onto which the film’s gallery of supporters are content to project their wishes.” — Alison Willmore, AV Club
Speaking of supporters, check out the curious rave currently atop conservative entertainment site Big Hollywood , where The Undefeated utterly invalidated author Ben Howe’s second-guessing about Palin — with one notable disclosure: “I consider the director of The Undefeated, Stephen Bannon, to be a friend of mine. He’s advised me in my own fledgling productions. I’ve interviewed him a handful of times on my podcast and we always talk for over an hour effortlessly.” Ah ha.
Meanwhile, not long after a distributor’s report that The Undefeated was packing them in at the AMC 10 in Grapevine, Texas, along came word that the GOP stronghold of Orange County was not proving quite as redoubtable ‘round midnight:
I sat there alone for 20 minutes, at which point an usher stuck his head in the door, gave me a quizzical smile, and said, “How come you’re not watching Harry Potter?” Then he left me by myself again, and without any good answer.
It isn’t strictly accurate to say that I sat through the whole movie alone. Just as the previews started, two young women walked in giggling together and took seats three rows behind me. Afraid that they’d ruined the only story I had at that point — What If Sarah Palin Starred in a Movie and No One Showed Up? — I hoped they’d at least oblige me with an interview, and so they did. […] “We looked online for the latest movie playing,” Jessie added. “But all the Harry Potters were sold out, and then we saw The Undeafeated. We don’t even actually know what we’re seeing.” […] I thought maybe I’d talk to them after the movie, and get the perspective of two people who went in with no expectations. But they only lasted 20 minutes before walking out.
And so the culture war continues — prophets, acolytes, haters, and ironists, converging from the fringes and mainstream underbrush for some stake in the Palin myth and maybe a few bucks if or when the public’s eyeballs stop rolling and actually focus in earnest. But I don’t know. It really was a lot more fun when all of this vexation simply meant having a go at talking animals. Presidential prospects, though? Not so much.