There may be worse things in life than sitting through a 90-minute movie about Sarah Palin. At the moment, I just can’t think of any.
For a shrill, obnoxious loudmouth spouting more semantic goofs in public than Mrs. Malaprop, she has mangled more facts, misquoted more people and been on the wrong side of so many things that she’s ready for a cinematic firing squad. And for a veteran documentary filmmaker with the credits of British director Nick Broomfield, I expected Sarah Palin—You Betcha! to be a hair-raising exposé. But he didn’t have to put in much overtime. All he had to do was go to Wasilla, Alaska, open his eyes and ears, and keep his cameras rolling. As her family, friends and enemies—including just about everybody she has ever worked with as mayor, governor and vice presidential nominee-—prove in every scene, Sarah Palin defines self-parody.
The result is a balanced job of reporting that drives a stake through the heart of whatever she had left of a political career. Not easy, when a subject speaks only through Facebook and Twitter. But Mr. Broomfield, who wrote and directed the film with Joan Churchill, has profiled difficult subjects before: Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos, for starters. This might have been his easiest job yet. She was a pistol-packin’ mama who arrived on the scene after shooting and killing animals from a helicopter just in time to wreck John McCain’s bid for the presidency (although he did plenty to make a fool of himself on his own), stuck around to drive the Tea Party to infamy, and flapped her mouth with notable quotables like “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.” It’s all in the movie. She does the work. You just shudder.
Driving the wedge even further into America’s partisan political divide, her polarizing effect has pretty much rendered Sarah Palin impotent now, even as she makes veiled giggling threats about the 2012 election. But this movie dips from the trough of her roots to discover how such a phenomenon could have happened in the first place. In Wasilla, with a population of 5,000 served by 77 churches, she was never home, but Mr. Broomfield did interview her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, who taught her how to hunt and kill. “There’s three common questions to ask us,” says her grinning dad. “Number one—what’s her game plan? We don’t know. Number two—did we see this coming? No. The third question asked frequently is, how has it changed our lives? Well, I still drink the same cheap beer I drank 40 years ago and still run with the same derelicts.” The folksy down-home style Sarah Palin still uses to avoid discussing real issues with her fans and charm her detractors obviously begins at home, and grows instantly transparent.
In 1976 she left the Catholic church, got born again by being dipped in a lake and joined the Assembly of God. That, according to her classmates, is where the superior hunger for power began. Driven by evangelical dogma, she forced her teammates in track and basketball to pray before every game, promising them they would burn in hell if they opposed her. (Alarming footage shows her in church being saved from witchcraft.) The Rev. Howard Bess, known as “the bravest man in Wasilla” because of his constant battles with Ms. Palin’s religious fanaticism, declares, “She has no hesitancy to use violence against all who oppose her, no conscience about triggering a nuclear war. She believes she is God’s anointed one and until you understand that, you don’t understand Sarah Palin.”
Dragging those apocalyptic religious obsessions into the arena of politics, a portrait of a zealot emerges that is about as scary as it gets. Her mayoral campaign embraced the National Rifle Association, defamed the former mayor because his name was “Stein,” and fueled the firing of every department head at City Hall who disagreed with her, including the chief of police who opposed her support for concealed weapons in public places. From 1996 to 2002, she burned and destroyed every book in the public library on the subject of homosexuality under the banner “Pray Away the Gay!” According to her deputy mayor, her rabid, uncompromising hatred of abortion and homosexuality went viral with “disrespect for intelligence, scholarship, science, history and sexual and religious freedoms of every kind.” Her campaign manager when she ran for governor of Alaska presents a picture of a disconnected, gum-chewing flake who lived on her BlackBerry, busily devoting her time to getting even with all of her adversaries, including her own brother-in-law, a state trooper named Mike Wooten, for divorcing her sister. While she was governor, according to eyewitness testimonies, she almost bankrupted the state of Alaska. Vital issues like medical benefits for senior citizens, oil revenues, health insurance and environmental protection legislation all went to hell while she devoted her energy to settling personal grudges. By the time she walked off the job to run for vice president, her approval ratings were the lowest in Alaska’s history. And still she makes noises about a comeback.
In case you think Sarah Palin—You Betcha! is a hit job on an easy subject, see the movie and learn something. It’s terrifying, but in all fairness, no disgrace, no rumor of extramarital affairs in office, no broadside is explored unless it can be substantiated. No need to gild a poison lily. She didn’t know Africa was a continent. She still insists you can see Russia from Alaska. The movie has wry humor and sobering facts, but Mr. Broomfield doesn’t make anything up. By the end, the catalogue of her failures, hypocrisies and lies is still overwhelming. But despite her political irrelevance, her biggest supporter is Rupert Murdoch, who paid her a $3 million salary for Fox and a $7 million advance for her book, Going Rogue. She is currently being offered a cool million to undergo a polygraph test to disprove accusations of immorality in public office in the new Palin biography by Joe McGinnis. Ignorant, self-serving, vengeful, deeply dishonest, power-mad and pathological are just a few of the descriptions in this film, and they do not come from a bunch of sore-headed Democrats either. Both sides get a chance to cast a ballot. One long-time Palin voter says, “When she meets people, they just melt.” Oh, where have I been?
Will she ever go away? All I know is she’s not the person I want to place near the red phone that connects the Pentagon to a nuclear war. Should we worry? You betcha.
SARAH PALIN—YOU BETCHA!
Running Time 90 minutes
Directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Starring Sarah Palin, Nick Broomfield and John McCain