June 6, 2011 | Commentary on Political Thought
Long before Sarah Palin became one of America's most polarizing political figures - reviled by the left and critiqued by the right - she was an extremely popular governor of Alaska with a record of major accomplishments.
Years before emerging on the national scene, Palin rightfully earned the "maverick" label for taking on corruption and shaking up the establishment in Juneau.
But to this day, the story of Palin's rise to power remains largely unknown outside of Alaska. While it was part of her best-selling book, "Going Rogue," Americans have heard a different tale from the liberal media - one that portrays Palin as an unintelligent, conniving politician who poses a dangerous threat to the country. It began on Aug. 29, 2008, and hasn’t stopped since.
A new feature-length documentary by conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon seeks to change that perception. It tells the incredible story of Palin's groundbreaking rise in Alaska and foreshadows the unpredictable future that awaits.
I was among a small group of reporters from Washington to view the film recently. It's a powerful story of an amazing woman, but also a sad tale of a life changed forever.
"The Undefeated" is already generating buzz as a film that could alter the 2012 landscape. It will debut later this month in Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
Bannon, who last year produced “Fire from the Heartland,” a story of conservative women, is so confident that he financed the $1 million documentary himself.
Three years after Palin emerged as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential pick, the movie seeks to educate Americans about her tenure in Alaska. In fact, most Americans won't recognize the Palin they see in this film.
The documentary includes three acts, the first two devoted to a detailed look at Palin's successful stint as mayor of Wasilla and then governor of Alaska. Palin wasn’t interviewed for the film; Bannon instead uses audio tracks from “Going Rogue.”
Long before Palin was a household name in the lower 48, she was facing sustained and sometimes sexist attacks from political adversaries in Alaska.
Not surprisingly, she overcame the challenges and managed to win the respect of many Alaskans for her populist agenda.
Palin’s political career took off in 1996 when she narrowly defeated Wasilla’s incumbent mayor, John Stein, and then went on to defeat him again by a landslide in her re-election bid.
As mayor, Palin cut taxes and transformed Wasilla into a pro-business city that attracted big-box retailers.
Her work paid off. She was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, becoming a strong advocate for ethics reform and gaining a reputation for challenging corrupt bureaucrats -- a theme throughout the movie.
This was most evident when Palin took on a fellow commissioner (who was also state Republican Party chairman), stood her ground and resigned from the six-figure job when she grew frustrated with Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski.
That gave Palin an opening to launch an insurgent campaign against the incumbent governor, a towering figure in a state politics. She defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary, then easily beat Democrat Tony Knowles, a former governor, in the general election.
Bannon uses the second act of the documentary to detail Palin’s three major accomplishments as governor: approval of a natural gas pipeline, a tax deal that has left Alaska with a budget surplus and a confrontation with Exxon Mobil over oil development.
Even though the movie begins to drag during the second act, Bannon excites viewers in the third act with the dramatic story of Palin’s selection as vice president and her riveting acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention -- a speech you’ll view differently knowing the details of Palin’s accomplishments in Alaska.
The convention speech is a moment of both joy and sadness. At the time, Palin evoked memories of Ronald Reagan for her masterful way of connecting with people.
But looking back nearly three years, Palin hasn’t lived up to that potential. In fact, after a TLC reality show, two books and numerous speaking engagements, she’s now viewed suspiciously even by conservatives and loathed by many Americans.
It didn’t have to be this way -- and it’s not entirely Palin’s fault. Two weeks after her national debut, the U.S. economy collapsed along with McCain’s campaign. Americans were never exposed to her achievements in Alaska. Instead, they saw Katie Couric quiz Palin about the newspapers she reads and Tina Fey mock her on “Saturday Night Live.”
There's such a stark contrast of Palin before her selection as vice president that you can't help but feel badly about how this story has turned out -- at least so far. But that's also what I found most compelling about the film -- that there is potential for redemption.
“The Undefeated” certainly helps reverse the negative perceptions of Palin, especially the prevailing view that she’s not ready for primetime. However, it will require Americans to actually spend two hours in the theater to find out why.
Bannon told me it might not be as difficult as some might suspect. He said even liberal theater owners are clamoring for a chance to screen the movie, realizing that Palin’s story is a lot more remarkable than even they realized. Aside from selling tickets, Bannon also wants to change minds. That will be a tougher sell.
Rob Bluey is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner