While Stephen K. Bannon’s documentary The Undefeated can accurately be described as a giant Sarah Palin campaign commercial, that can’t possibly convey the strangeness of watching it. The film isn’t just structured like a political ad, relenting in its singing of Palin’s praises only to spare a few moments to decry her enemies. It looks and sounds like an ad, too, with jittery, rapid-fire editing; wall-to-wall music that either thrums ominously or swells in triumph; and a Greek chorus of adoring interviewees expelling sound bites in front of a white backdrop.
The near-two-hour runtime is fleshed out with filler shots that are the video equivalent of clip art—discussions of the need for budget cuts come with a glimpse of money being set aflame, and talk of Palin being attacked in the press is accompanied by footage of an angry crowd shouting at the camera. These inserts get wilder and more dreamlike as the film goes along—lions hunting down and eating a zebra, a man with his head in a hedge, two businessmen smiling at each other while hiding weapons behind their backs, a knight getting shot with an arrow—until viewers are left to wonder if it’s all actually some sort of vehicle for subliminal messaging.
When it comes to the overt messaging, however, there’s no mystery. The Undefeated presents Palin as the triumphant savior of “ordinary, hardworking people,” an “existential threat” to the right and left alike (the film is devoutly Tea Party), and the victim of undeserved attacks from Hollywood, journalists, other politicians, and the “elite.” After running through Palin’s time in Alaska in excruciating detail, the film skims over her VP run with startling briskness before positioning her triumphantly at the forefront of what’s proclaimed as a new political movement.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone who isn’t already a devoted Palinite seeking out or sitting through The Undefeated, which makes its distance from its subject all the more befuddling. The film features no interviews with Palin—she’s heard via snippets from the audiobook of Going Rogue, and seen only in news clips. Other than an opening montage of childhood photos, there’s nothing about her background or early life. 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.