Directed by Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill
Produced by Marc Hoeferlin
Released by Freestyle Releasing
UK/USA. 90 min. Not rated
Trolling the frozen streets of Wasilla, Alaska, to explore the roots of its hometown media and political sensation, Sarah Palin: You Betcha! isn’t the hatchet job that her suspicious local allies expected. But documentary directors Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill add so little insight by talking mostly to her enemies (some would say her targets) that a viewer almost becomes sympathetic about what she has to put up with. Almost.
Within the film’s rambling, somewhat chronological organization, the video clips of Palin’s trajectory from state basketball championship, to beauty pageants, to sportscasts, illustrate well her competitive spirit even before she entered politics. It’s just mention in passing, with no explanation, that the McCain campaign vetted only for a few hours the popular governor of Alaska before putting her on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate in 2008. The montage of clips from the presidential campaign include the familiar glimpses of her knowledge lacunae from national interviews.
In tracking her career before her acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, his analysis of the small-town politics of Wasilla entertainingly dissects long-standing feuds and how they were extended into the governor’s office in Juneau. Stymied by a lack of cooperation from Palin’s friends and allies, who (reasonably enough) told him they have been burned by the media in the past, Broomfield extensively interviewed those with negative experiences, thereby dooming any chance of gaining official cooperation. It doesn’t help that he frequently cites accusations that he admits are unsubstantiated, even as they’ve been repeated in many other outlets. Palin’s father Chuck Heath is genial and welcoming to Broomfield on camera, and the subsequent recounting by others of his petty vindictiveness doesn’t sound any more vengeful than other political fathers, notably Joseph Kennedy (and he had a lot more money to back up his grudges).
Broomfield inserts himself into the film more and more, which may have been useful as an outsider in investigating Biggie and Tupac (2002), but here comes across looking foolish as if going native in flannels and slipping on glare ice in Alaska is brave and risky journalism. Presumably out of frustration over Palin’s avoidance in granting him an interview, he imitates Michael Moore’s stalking of the elusive head of General Motors in Roger and Me (1989) to make his attempt too much of the story. (He half-seriously threatens to interview Palin parodist Tina Fey instead.) Yes, it’s amusing how he follows her from book signing to book signing (giving away the autographed books he purchases in order to get close to her bright smile) and stages an aggressive questioning with a bull horn at an open forum that turned out to have pre-scripted restrictions. But from the comfort of her Fox News platform as an unannounced candidate, why should she talk to him?
Broomfield never deals directly with the particular issues facing a woman in politics, let alone a photogenic mother, either about balancing family or the media’s treatment of her (such as his montages of unflattering photographs). The closest he comes is through the disparaging comments about her parenting skills from her ex-brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, the state trooper in the “Troopergate” scandal who was investigated and fired (and on Palin’s orders reinvestigated and refired) so, of course, he has an ax to grind, as do her staff and gubernatorial appointees she dismissed before she quit as governor. (The so folksy Alaskans are frequently seen chopping wood, among other similar outdoor activities, and all the interviews seem to be conducted around active hunting dogs.)
Originally produced under the aegis of the U. K.’s Channel 4, Broomfield’s omissions on the basics of the U. S. political system are glaring. Though he rushed the theatrical release (and it looks it) to influence the election season, he does not once mention presidential primaries or wrestles with the political problem of appealing to the motivated, narrow base of primary voters versus appealing more broadly to independents, who affect the outcome of a general election. This omission is particularly noteworthy when he is shocked, shocked to learn about the apocalyptic views of Christian evangelicals and the influence they have within the Republican Party. In demonstrating some evangelicals’ colorful views, he makes no effort to distinguish how typical or extreme Palin’s beliefs are within this community, which would be apropos in comparing her to Republican candidates such as Texas Governor Rick Perry or Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
The playing over the closing credits of Palin getting punked by radio pranksters seems as much about her victimization by the media as about her ignorance, and is symbolic of this inconsistent film as a whole.