By Scott Conroy
Shortly after Republicans swept last November to a historic victory in which Sarah Palin was credited with playing a central role, the former Alaska governor pulled aside her close aide, Rebecca Mansour, to discuss a hush-hush assignment: Reach out to conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon with a request. Ask him if he would make a series of videos extolling Palin's governorship and laying to rest lingering questions about her controversial decision to resign from office with a year-and-a-half left in her first term. It was this abdication, Palin knew, that had made her damaged goods in the eyes of some Republicans who once were eager to get behind her potential 2012 presidential campaign.
The response was more positive than Palin could have hoped for. He'd make a feature-length movie, Bannon told Mansour, and he insisted upon taking complete control and financing it himself -- to the tune of $1 million.
The fruits of that initial conversation are now complete. The result is a two-hour-long, sweeping epic, a rough cut of which Bannon screened privately for Sarah and Todd Palin last Wednesday in Arizona, where Alaska's most famous couple has been rumored to have purchased a new home. When it premieres in Iowa next month, the film is poised to serve as a galvanizing prelude to Palin's prospective presidential campaign -- an unconventional reintroduction to the nation that she and her political team have spent months eagerly anticipating, even as Beltway Republicans have largely concluded that she won't run.
Bannon, a former naval officer and ex-Goldman Sachs banker, sees his documentary as the first step in Palin's effort to rebuild her image in the eyes of voters who may have soured on her, yet might reconsider if old caricatures begin to fade. The film will also appeal to staunch Palin supporters who have long celebrated her biting rhetoric and conservative populism yet know little about her record in Alaska and have perhaps written her off as presidential material.
"This film is a call to action for a campaign like 1976: Reagan vs. the establishment," Bannon told RealClearPolitics. "Let's have a good old-fashioned brouhaha."
RealClearPolitics was recently given an exclusive screening of a rough cut of the now finished film, which Bannon designed, in part, to help catapult Palin from the presidential afterthought she has become in the eyes of many pundits directly to the front lines of the 2012 GOP conversation.
Palin initially learned about Bannon's work after she saw one of his previous films about the origins of the tea party movement, "Generation Zero," which premiered last year in Nashville and was later aired in prime time on the Fox News Channel. Impressed, Palin promoted "Generation Zero" via Twitter before later reaching out to Bannon about creating something to highlight her record in Alaska, where her performance in office was overshadowed by her resignation eight months after the 2008 presidential election.
Though she did not have any editorial role in the project, Palin facilitated access for Bannon and his film crew to key Alaskan defenders who were involved with the major achievements of her administration, and the filmmaker spent several weeks in the 49th state gathering archival film and conducting research and interviews for the project. He and his team took extraordinary measures to keep their endeavor secret.
When they requested from Alaska's TV news stations footage that was shot during Palin's political rise, they asked for additional tapes containing subject matters that were irrelevant to their project, in order not to raise suspicions. And rather than staying at the well-appointed Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, they instead took up temporary residence in low-key motels.
"We shot on the weekends, and we shot in locations that weren't being used during those weekends," Bannon said. "I did it with a handpicked crew of people I know and trust, and we were able to stay under the radar. The planning for the secrecy of this took many, many weeks."
Bannon originally titled his film "Take a Stand," which was the campaign slogan for Palin's 2006 gubernatorial run when she defeated incumbent Republican Frank Murkowski in the primary before cruising in the general election to become Alaska's youngest -- and first female -- chief executive. But in order to give it a more triumphant punch, the filmmaker changed the title to "The Undefeated."
Bannon acquired the audio rights to Palin's 2009 bestseller, "Going Rogue," and the former vice-presidential nominee's voice guides the film through the various stages of her career in Alaska.
Although Palin is not interviewed directly, the film features on-camera interviews and commentaries from 10 Alaskans who played different roles in her political rise, as well as six Lower 48 denizens who defend her in more visceral terms, including prominent conservative firebrands Mark Levin, Andrew Breitbart and Tammy Bruce.
Divided into three acts, the film makes the case that despite the now cliched label, Palin was indeed a maverick who confronted the powerful forces lined up against her to achieve wide-ranging success in a short period of time. The second part of the film's message is just as clear, if more subjective: that Sarah Palin is the only conservative leader who can both build on the legacy of the Reagan Revolution and bring the ideals of the tea party movement to the Oval Office.
Rife with religious metaphor and unmistakable allusions to Palin as a Joan of Arc-like figure, "The Undefeated" echoes Palin's "Going Rogue" in its tidy division of the world between the heroes who are on her side and the villains who seek to thwart her at every turn.
To convey Bannon's view of the pathology behind Palin-hatred, the film begins with a fast-paced sequence of clips showing some of the prominent celebrities who have used sexist, derogatory and generally vicious language to describe her.
Rosie O'Donnell, Matt Damon, Bill Maher, David Letterman, and Howard Stern all have brief cameos before comedian Louis C.K. goes off on a particularly ugly anti-Palin riff.
"I hate her more than anybody," C.K. says at the end of his tirade, the rest of which is unfit to print here.
Bannon intends to release two versions of the film. An unrated edition will contain some obscene anti-Palin language and imagery, while the other is targeted to a general audience and will seek a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.
The Making of a Politician
After a brief interlude featuring some old Palin family home video footage, Act 1 begins with Sarah as narrator, recalling the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, when she was a young pregnant wife married to a blue-collar husband working on the North Slope.
"I hadn't yet envisioned running for elected office," Palin says in the audio taken from "Going Rogue," as images of the environmental disaster unfold on the screen. "But looking back, I could see that tragedy planted a seed in me. If I ever had a chance to serve my fellow citizens, I would do so."
Over the next hour, the crux of the narrative is taken over by Palin's Alaska backers, with former spokesperson Meg Stapleton and attorney Tom Van Flein leading the charge. Other more unfamiliar faces who uphold Palin's Alaska legacy include former Wasilla Deputy Mayor Judy Patrick, former gas pipeline adviser Marty Rutherford, longtime confidantes Kristan Cole and Judy Patrick, and former state Sen. Gene Therriault -- one of the few Alaska legislators who has remained vocal and consistent in his praise of Palin.
The recounting of Palin's earliest years in public office relies on a treasure trove of rare and never-before-seen video obtained by Bannon, including shots of Palin breaking ground on a construction project with her fellow Wasilla City Councilors, waving signs for her mayoral reelection campaign, and reacting acidly to a comment made by John Stein -- her predecessor in the mayor's office and one of the film's villains, who compared her to a "Spice Girl."
As the documentary transitions to Palin's ascent to statewide office, it dramatizes the culture of corruption that permeated Alaska, with images of fat men smoking cigars in dark rooms and the infamous Suite 604 at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau, where the FBI secretly videotaped executives of the oil services company VECO in a corruption scandal that would shake the foundations of Alaska government just as Palin was making a name for herself as an ethics crusader.
"The Undefeated" conveys the dramatic extent to which Palin's world has changed in just a few years, as it shows her announcing her gubernatorial campaign not at a massive rally but at a sparsely attended press conference in her kitchen. Those unfamiliar with Palin's political background will be surprised to learn that the woman who has become one of the nation's most boisterous press critics was once such a media darling that two of the Alaska TV news correspondents whose highly favorable reports are shown in the film ended up leaving their jobs to join the Palin administration.
Palin's charisma has in recent years often been overshadowed by the more unforgiving side of her personality, but one scene from the film illustrates how she has long used her personal charm to disarm and discombobulate her competitors.
"Oh, this will be fun," Palin says to her soon-to-be vanquished Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Tony Knowles, during a brief encounter in Anchorage on primary night in 2006. Knowles remains speechless, while Palin smiles and adds an "Oh, golly" for good measure.
Mining the ‘Maverick' Label
Palin's stint as a hard-charging reformer in Juneau won her approval ratings that consistently topped 80 percent and made her the most popular governor in America, catching the eye of the McCain campaign. It was the "maverick" label that piqued McCain's interest in 2008 -- far more than Palin's supposed purity on social issues -- just as it does the filmmaker's.
The movie focuses on Palin's triumphs on fiscal and energy matters, while ignoring hot-button topics like abortion. Indeed, although she was always identified as a staunch social conservative, Palin often worked more closely with Democrats than Republicans in Juneau and largely avoided ideological fights during her first two years in office.
Yet Palin the Fighter is an ever-present theme in the documentary; one of its most memorable moments occurs when Meg Stapleton recalls an encounter at the Fairbanks airport when Palin literally stared down an oil executive who told her, "You don't know who you're messing with."
The film's third act puts a positive spin on Palin's 2008 vice presidential run, reminding viewers of her initially valuable impact on the McCain campaign by showing the Gallup poll trend lines that had the Republican ticket taking its first lead over the Democrats before the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15.
It also gives an extended treatment to Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., her finest hour politically.
"The Undefeated" eschews less flattering topics, such as the Troopergate saga -- which had little effect on the VP campaign but left a lastingly negative impression of Palin in the eyes of many Alaskans -- and her unimpressive series of interviews with Katie Couric.
Bannon dramatizes the theme of Palin's persecution at the hands of her enemies in the media and both political parties, a notion the former governor has long embraced. Images of lions killing a zebra and a dead medieval soldier with an arrow sticking in his back dramatize the ethics complaints filed by obscure Alaskan citizens, which Palin has cited as the primary reason for her sudden resignation in July of 2009.
The film's coda is introduced with an on-screen caption that reads, "From here, I can see November." It is here that Mark Levin alludes to Ronald Reagan as a Palin-like insurgent who was also once distrusted by the GOP establishment.
Palin is then shown firing up a rally that occurred just last month on the steps of the state capitol in Wisconsin. "What we need is for you to stand up, GOP, and fight," Palin, in vintage campaign form, shouts to the crowd. "Maybe I should ask some of the Badger women's hockey team -- those champions -- maybe I should ask them if we should be suggesting to GOP leaders they need to learn how to fight like a girl!"
Following an extended in-your-face riff by Andrew Breitbart in which he repeatedly denounces as "eunuchs" the male Republican leaders who decline to defend Palin, the film ends with one last scene from the April rally in Madison: "Mr. President, game on!" Palin shouts before a martial drumbeat ushers in a closing quotation by Thomas Paine, which also appeared in "Going Rogue." The implication is neither subtle nor easy to dismiss.
In a telling sign of how the film's message has already resonated with her own thought process, Palin made reference to the Paine quotation during an appearance on Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show last week shortly after she viewed a rough cut of the film for the first time.
"It's like Thomas Paine said, Greta, one of our founders. He said, ‘If there be trouble, let it be in my day that my child may have peace,'" Palin said. "I think of that when I consider whether running for office or not."
SarahPAC's treasurer Tim Crawford confirmed that "The Undefeated" was a hit with Palin.
"The governor thought it was great," Crawford said.
Bannon's film also resonated with members of Palin's staff, including Mansour.
"I'm a huge fan of Steve's work," Mansour said in a statement to RCP on Tuesday. "His film on President Reagan, ‘In the Face of Evil,' is my favorite documentary, and his ‘Generation Zero' was a rallying cry for the Tea Party movement early on. I think his new film really captures the essence of Governor Palin's stewardship of Alaska, and I think people will be really surprised by it. It shatters so many false stereotypes because it shows what she actually accomplished as governor. You can't leave it thinking the same way about Sarah Palin."
In the last couple of months, Palin has delivered major policy speeches, hired a chief of staff, made a well-publicized foreign trip that included a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all the while remaining consistent about her vow -- first made just days after the 2008 campaign ended -- that she would "crash through" any of the "open doors" that might lead to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Bannon intends to premiere the film in Iowa late next month before expanding the release to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. After the initial rollout in the four early voting states, the filmmaker will eventually release it to somewhere between 50 and 100 markets nationwide.
Palin aides have not yet decided whether the former governor will play an active role in the film's premiere, but there has been some preliminary discussion of purchasing copies of the film from Bannon to distribute as gifts to SarahPAC donors.
Bannon is also working out a video-on-demand deal that will make the movie more widely accessible.
Palin has been tight-lipped about which way she is leaning in regard to running for president next year, but her team of advisers is operating under the notion that they are laying the groundwork for a future campaign, until they are told otherwise.
Palin's future presidential bid might be based in the Phoenix area -- where Bristol Palin also recently purchased a new home -- but Palin's aides have yet to reach out to potential venues for a campaign headquarters in Arizona.
Despite Palin's apparent desire to wait as long as possible before making her decision, aides acknowledge that they will soon have to establish a more campaign-like operation in order to begin a more concerted effort to raise money and take other steps that would be required -- even for a potential candidate as unconventional as Palin.
Meanwhile, the news about Palin's initial effort to commission a film project to highlight her political record is sure to put additional pressure on Fox News to demand an answer from one of their star contributors on whether she intends to run for president or continue working as a political analyst on the network that may soon find itself reporting on her campaign.
Palin and her aides have appeared to recognize that despite some recent polls showing her near the top of the prospective Republican field, she still has substantial problems with independent voters and large swaths of the GOP. Even more daunting will be finding a way to explain persuasively just how it was that ethics complainers and liberal bloggers -- whom other politicians in her shoes might have largely dismissed as relatively minor nuisances -- succeeded in forcing her of office.
But coming on the heels of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's decision not to join the fray, many grassroots conservatives are clamoring for a candidate who has both the stature and the sizzle to compete with President Obama.
If she does decide to run, "The Undefeated" will be the key element to her initial coming-out party. The film's impending release -- and the frenzied media attention that it is sure to generate -- will serve as a vivid wake-up call that despite the many obstacles in front of her, Palin's entry into the race would turn the campaign on its head in an instant, just as it did in 2008.
As she mulls her decision in the coming weeks, the other Republican candidates in the field will be left to prepare for a hibernating grizzly who appears poised to rise up once again.
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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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