Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sarah Palin: You Betcha! [film review]

* Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Sarah Palin: You Betcha! seeks to get the real story behind the divisive former vice presidential candidate and governor of Alaska, who has somehow managed to become a prominent figure on the U.S. political landscape, despite what appears to be an almost laughable lack of qualifications. Her shortcomings become the focus of directors Nick Broomfield's and Joan Churchill's film, which will likely be dismissed as a character assassination by the Republican right, but Palin's deficiencies are impossible to ignore. In fact, they're front and centre.
Broomfield is best known for his documentaries Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac, and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer. You Betcha!, making its world premiere at the festival, employs the same style used in many of his films, where Broomfield himself frequently appears on-screen. Documentary purists might bristle at the fact that the director, like Michael Moore, becomes such a prominent figure in his own films (which he also narrates), but it's a style that works for him, mostly because of his quirky charm. One scene in the movie shows Broomfield arriving at an interviewee's residence and beginning the interview with her before he's even let inside, as she talks to him through an open window as he tries to stay upright while standing on the sheet of ice that's covering her driveway, all while holding on to his ever-present boom microphone and audio recording equipment. The fact he's outfitted in an ugly flannel jacket and funny looking winter hat with earflaps only adds to the entertainingly oddball scene.
Broomfield and Churchill (who does most of the camera work) spent ten weeks shooting in the dead of winter in Palin's hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, which could best be summed up as a land of guns, God, and snow. The town itself is a bit of a fascinating subject: it's the crystal meth capital of the state and home to a staggering 76 churches for the population of 6,000. They interview Palin's parents (mostly her father, Chuck), who at first are fairly welcoming, but soon become more leery of the filmmakers as they find out they've been talking to some of their daughter's enemies and detractors in town. Chuck is worried about another "hit piece" by the media. Former Palin friends and classmates are harder to find - the few that will talk tell the filmmakers of worries about repercussions from Palin and her supporters that could affect their ability to earn a living in the small town, or even their safety. One man from her high school inner circle dismisses the revisionist PR job that Palin and her team did to paint her as a successful high school athlete who came to be known as "Sarah Barracuda" because of her tenacity. He says she was a very mediocre athlete and only got the "Barracuda" nickname because their group of friends simply loved the song with the same name by Heart. The meat of the film are the numerous interviews with Palin's former political colleagues, who collectively depict her as someone who felt contempt for intellectuals, was disengaged from the political process, vindictive, naive, and unloyal. Some variation of the phrase "thrown under the bus" occurs with comedic regularity from the former co-workers, but it's most sobering when you hear a version of it from one of the senior strategists who worked on John McCain's presidential campaign. It's a damning indictment of the McCain camp that they failed to uncover Palin's skeletons, which appear to have been hiding in plain sight, before making her their vice presidential nominee.
The filmmakers also speak to former family members, who use many of the same adjectives that Palin's political colleagues used to describe her. Most prominent from this group is her former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, who was the focus of the "Troopergate" scandal that implicated Palin over a possible abuse of her powers, while governor, to get Wooten fired from his job as a state trooper. Unsurprisingly, he has nothing good to say about her, even making some fairly pointed accusations about the parenting skills of Palin and her father. Of course, no documentary on Palin would be complete without an examination of her staunch religious beliefs. The most interesting interviews on the topic come from an Alaskan pastor who has a rocky history with Palin, notably their differences on homosexuality in the church. He worries about her mental stability around something as important as nuclear launch codes because of the fact that "she believes she's God's anointed one".
Palin herself remains an elusive target and the film never manages to get any closer to her than Broomfield's appearances at a few of her book signings, where she's non-committal to his interview requests, and Broomfield turning up in the audience at a couple of her speaking engagements. The speaking engagement scenes add comedic value, but do come off as somewhat grandstanding on his part as he gets kicked out of one event after surreptitiously asking Palin a question from the venue floor, and resorts to using a malfunctioning megaphone at another as the audience disinterestedly files out of the arena after the event.
Churchill and Broomfield took to an online funding website for creative projects called Kickstarter.com last month in an effort to raise funds so the film could get distributed in U.S. theatres. They raised a little more than their target goal of $30,000 in less than three weeks and managed to secure a limited release in New York and Los Angeles at the end of September. Audiences will discover a consistently entertaining and occasionally revelatory portrait of one of the most fascinating political figures in recent memory.
Rating: ★★★★

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