Nick Broomfield isn't always a particularly disciplined documentarian, but he is a cheekily entertaining one. His previous films have delved, compellingly, into the scandal of Heidi Fleiss, the incarceration of Aileen Wournos, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.; all were as motivated by sensation as information, and all were as much about their filmmaker as they were about their subjects. Indeed, the wry Englishman frequently makes the process of creating the film an integral part of the film itself, showing (explicitly or implicitly) how much we can learn about a person by how hard it is to get to them, and how easy it is to find people who will say terrible things about them.
After a hiatus from the documentary form (he spent several years on the docudrama Battle for Haditha), Broomfield returns with a film on a subject as scandalous and tabloid-friendly as any he's tackled before. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! finds the filmmaker (and his co-director Joan Churchill) heading up to Wasilla, Alaska, to try to better understand the divisive former governor by interviewing those who knew her best--and, hopefully, by talking with Pain herself.
This is, by definition, a political film, so we might as well get the politics out there: I, like (presumably) most of Broomfield's audience, am not much of an admirer of Ms. Palin. (Feel free to discount this review accordingly.) I think she's represents something truly dangerous in American political discourse--and I'm not talking about her conservative politics, but about her willful, if not downright gleeful, ignorance. No political figure has ever been as proud about how little she knows than Sarah Palin is--and that, as much as anything, seems to be what draws her devotees to her. In one scene in the film, Broomfield chats with a gun store owner, and asks why he likes Palin so much. The gentleman speaks glowingly of her regularity. "No big fancy words!" he beams. That pretty much sums it up.
Those who do, in fact, admire Palin will doubtlessly react quite differently to Broomfield and Churchill's film, should they see it (which is dubious). The question is, how does Nick Broomfield feel about her? The way the picture is constructed and played, they went to Wasila with no agenda and no pre-conceived notions, with no intention to make what Palin's father later calls "a hit show." In fact, in the early scenes, he chats amiably with her parents and, after meeting the former governor at a book signing, "I could understand why people fell in love with her." Is he shaping a sympathetic portrait?
No, probably not. But we at least get the sense that it could have gone that way--that had Palin or those close to her chosen to participate, the picture might have been a bit less one-sided. But frankly, he appears to have arrived at the conclusions that just about any clear-headed person poking around in Palin's past would: that she is a vindictive and reckless politico with a pathological need for attention and a bad habit of blaming everyone else for her own flaws.
One doesn't have to be a Michael Moore to arrive at that evaluation; several reputable journalists have said as much, though perhaps not in so many words. So with that in mind, it is frustrating that Broomfield occasionally muckety-mucks up the picture with a surplus of cheap shots. When mention is made that the dogmatic views of Palin's evangelical upbringing include a belief in End Days and the Rapture, the filmmakers throw in clips from goofy religious videos on the subject--and they're funny, sure, but they don't have anything to do with Palin. Neither does the story of Lewis, a gay teen from Wasilla who was harassed by his classmates; he's a product of Palin's environment, but the connection is tenuous at best. And I'm no fan of the evangelical movement, but a cut from discussion of the evangelicals to the picket-line shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church is downright dishonest. Those crazy fuckers don't represent anyone's religion but their own. (Sidenote: the film is rather startling in its technical shoddiness--and I'm not talking about the small-crew, low-fi production. The stock footage all appears to have been grabbed off of YouTube--sometimes with the "Viewing Copy" watermark of a conversion software's trial version plastered across the screen. C'mon, guys, pony up the fifty bucks for the clean copy.)
The film is at is best when it steers clear of the culture war stuff, and of Palin's personal life (those rumors of affairs and other bad behaviors are brought up, but sort of just left hanging there; leaving them in without adding anything new just serves to empower Palin supporters who consider the film a "hit show"). When it works is when it hews closest to Broomfield's stated goal of creating a "political biography": the pettiness and drama of her mayoral and gubernatorial administrations, and particularly of the "Troopergate" scandal (Broomfield gets a rare interview with the man at the center of that affair, Mike Wooten). The portrait that emerges there is riveting and probing; not much of this is new information, but the people that tell these stories--Wooten, "top cop" Walt Monegan, Alaska Senate president Lyda Green--deepen our understanding of them. And a scorched-earth phone interview with McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt sheds considerable light on that entire debacle.
Do some of those interviewed have axes to grind? Oh, probably. What is interesting, Broomfield ultimately seems to implicitly argue, is that there are so many people with axes to grind. As per usual, Broomfield's got a good nose for oddball characters, including Laura Chase (Palin's first campaign manager), Jesse Gryphen (an anti-Palin blogger), and Anne Kilkenny (a local political figure), who at one point exclaims, "This is a town of five thousand people, my gosh!"
For his part, Broomfield is endlessly polite--entering Palin's parent's home, he asks, "Should I take my boots off? Are you sure?"--and an often-comic figure, showing himself slipping and nearly falling on the Wasilla ice, or chasing down a fleeing Palin confidant for an interview. It becomes fairly clear early on that he is not going to get Palin herself to talk to him, though he keeps showing up at book signings to get soft-soaped ("By now, we had so many copies of Sarah's book, we were giving them away"), and that she will be the Roger Smith to his Michael Moore. But Broomfield soldiers on, clad in his hunter's jacket, boom mike in his hand, the muck-racking documentarian chasing down his story. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! does not offer him as complex a topic as his previous films, and is not one of his best efforts. But it is still comforting to see him back in the game.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.