Media, Politics

Bomb or smash? Palin’s new documentary divides box office boffins

By Richard Poplak 30 July 2011

Want further proof that in a divided America, there is no such thing as objectivity? Take the release of the Sarah Palin documentary “The Undefeated”. What could be more definitive than box office receipts? Turns out, the numbers have dozens of stories to tell, all of them political. By RICHARD POPLAK.

This is not a film review, and for that I am thankful. The art of the political documentary is indistinguishable from propaganda, mostly because it is propaganda. Standing ring left, wearing the green shorts and drinking a Big Gulp, we have Michael Moore, backed by the one-two combo of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. And in the right, wearing the Stars and Stripes, we have the Swift Boat Veterans, shored up by the inimitable, the invincible, the inviolable…Sarah Palin.

Yes, the Palin media machine has predictably churned out a documentary, called “The Undefeated” directed by Stephen K Bannon. His previous full-length opus is “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed”, which told the story of a young B-movie actor who stood up against the Hollywood trade union strike in the 1940s, jump-starting his commie-bashing ride to the White House. The film, released in 2004, garnered an 11% fresh rating on the meta-critic site, Rotten Tomatoes. Film reviewers tend to be of the lefty persuasion, but even Lou Lemenick, of the New York Post, couldn’t get effusive. “The ‘Face of War’ repeats the same points over and over in a manner that’s ironically very much like Soviet propaganda.” Ouch.

“In the Face of Evil’s” 11% rating presents something of a highpoint in Bannon’s career. His latest film, “The Undefeated,” has garnered a duck, an egg, a perfect zero. Not one critic who saw the film would go so far as to recommend it to consumers. Which is unfortunate, because one presumes that there is a decent documentary hiding somewhere in Palin’s closet. Bannon, it would seem, has chosen to make a lousy one.

Watch: ‘The Undefeated’ trailer

The film’s website provides the following synopsis, worth quoting in full: “Alaska in mid-decade was a land of vast natural resources fought over by the largest companies in the world and governed by a corrupt and compromised political class. Rampant crony-capitalism stood in the way of the people of Alaska reaping the benefits of their natural birthright. Enter a galvanizing reformer, a small town mayor who took on her own political party and brought on ‘sudden and relentless reform’. The Undefeated chronicles the rise from obscurity of one of America’s new generation of leaders: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Starting during the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 when Palin worked a commercial fishing boat she owned with her blue-collar husband, the film shows the struggles, the victories and the setbacks during a controversial career.”

Tell me there isn’t a good movie in there somewhere—I’m imagining a naked grizzly bear wrestling scene. But this is showbiz, and “good” will always take a backseat to “successful”. While American politicians drag their country to the crumbling edge of economic Armageddon, a small skirmish in the larger culture war plays out among Hollywood commentators, Palin backers, and box office analysts who know more about superhero sequels than they do about backwoods politicking.

Watch: Sarah Palin speaks after The Undefeated Movie Premiere June 28 Pella Iowa

Two weeks ago, the film debuted on 10 screens—standard rollout practice for an independent flick trying to drum up critical and audience support in limited release. The film grossed $65,132, which didn’t suggest pent up demand or a voracious audience appetite. (By comparison, “An Inconvenient Truth” cashed in $70,000 a screen average.) This low turnout shouldn’t be surprising, given Palin’s ubiquity. She has a reality show in re-runs, commentates on cable television semi-constantly, and has a book or two on shelves. Nonetheless, conservative commentators are claiming the film is a rock-em, sock-em blow-out success.

John Nolte, of La-La-Land bashing “Big Hollywood” writes, “I dare any President Obama partisan in Hollywood or the media to produce a feature-length, biographical documentary and release it in theatres. In fact, I double-dog dare you. Let’s see the per-screen average of a film adaptation of that biography Bill Ayers wrote for Obama. Let’s [see a] report on an opening-day afternoon screening of ‘Dreams from My Father: The Sanctimoniously Dull and Condescending Motion Picture’.”

In other words, the numbers of the Palin documentary have become political. As absurd as this may seem, especially in light of the ideological logjam in Washington right now, it delivers a neat metaphor for the current American condition. But even the toughest political in-fighters can’t compare with hard-nosed Hollywood types. In that town, the only thing that matters is the numbers. Spin them as you might, it comes down to big-ass Box Office, and according to industry maven Box Office Mojo, “Undefeated” is mojo-less.

Watch: Sarah Palin’s ‘The Undefeated’ Trailer – Spoof

After the film expanded by a further four theatres in its second weekend, and grossed a grisly $24,664, Brandon Gray, the site’s lead analyst, was moved to write the following: “Normally, a movie with such poor box office would not receive story coverage on Box Office Mojo, but the furor over ‘The Undefeated’ calls for an injection of truth. Even before ‘The Undefeated’ bottomed out in its second weekend, the movie was a bust in its first weekend, but its boosters latched onto two stats: per-theater average and ranking among political documentaries. The classic tactics of movie spin include bragging about per-theater average and declaring a high ranking in a niche category. Within the minor political documentary sub-genre, ‘The Undefeated’s’ $6,532 opening weekend per-theater average ranked 33rd out of the 91 limited openings tracked over the past 30 years, normalized for ticket price inflation. Among all documentaries, it was in the middle of the pack.”

In short, the movie’s numbers were garbage. But the facts must not be allowed to get in the way of a good story, and America’s fate presumably hangs in the balance of how well a Sarah Palin documentary performs at the Box Office. This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. And it would be merely tragic if it weren’t indicative of the forces currently ripping Washington in two.

When there is no objective reality, there are subjective positions. Or, worse, we enter the realm of fantasy. That’s Hollywood’s domain, where men in tights battle aliens for the good of us Earthlings. Sarah Palin has entered the fray, and depending on who you ask, she is either undefeated, or utterly, completely destroyed. DM


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Photo: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is reflected in the window of her SUV in Portsmouth, New Hampshire June 2, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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