Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Sarah Palin: You Betcha

I've always enjoyed Nick Broomfield's films. His quarry is usually some grotesque character in the public eye: Terre Blanche, Heidi Fleiss, Biggie and Tupac, Ailen Wuornos. A portrait is then built up through interviews in which Broofield himself is also visible, lumbering around with headphones and microphone, watched by a videocam in his car etc. There are faux-naif interviews  and stunts reminiscent of Michael Moore; but for all the film-about-making-a-film self-consciousness there is also a sense of real wide-eyed curiosity about the film's subject matter. Presumably Broomfield is an influence on Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson.

Last night More4 showed Broomfield's latest, Sarah Palin: You Betcha, in which, like Ian Hamilton looking for J D Salinger, Broomfield tries and  - of course - fails to get an interview with the former Governor of Alaska. He goes to Wasilla, where Palin started her political career as Mayor, and finds that everyone is either friend or foe of the Palin camp. The friends will not talk to him, nor will those who fear that retribution will follow. So Broomfield's interviewees are the foes, usually former allies who have been cast off somewhere on Palin's ruthless ascent. So the film is inevitably one-sided, but no less interesting for that: what we get is a portrait of power being wielded by someone whose vision of the world never gets above that of a street fight. So there is the with-us-or-against-us mentality, the sackings and vilifications of anyone perceived as a threat, the deep suspicion of thought and knowledge, and the constant need for an enemy to do battle with - here gays and abortions are the Evil One, an obsession fuelled by an evangelical group. Indeed, the fundamentalist evangelical background, it is proposed, is the key to understanding Palin - and, by extension, the Tea Party and the Republicans today. Manipulative and power-crazed figures can come from the left  as well as the right, of course, and the polularity they command suggests something about the power of media and the level of public education.

I imagine this film will have been much more interesting to a British audience than an American one. Presumably over there anyone with any interest in politics knows all about troopergate, the disastrous interview in front of a turkey slaughter, the huge power of evangelicals and the gun lobby etc. And there must be scope for real naivety too. You have to wonder what, say, a Michael Moore film about Gordon Brown would look like. But for those of us who are vague about the exact details of Palin's career it was an entertaining briefing. I didn't think the stunts added much, and I was quite sympathetic to the mayor who kicked Broomfield & team out of his office, where they had  no business to be. The non-interview was non-suspenseful. Presumably Broomfield is one of an army of journalists who has been after any dirt on Palin, so their suspicion (especially given his track record with films, and hers with unscripted interviews) was understandable. It might have been interesting to learn more about the funding behind her campaigns: the film presented her as a driven Mean Girl, but might she not have been the script-reader for larger corporate interests? McCain's choice of Palin as a running partner was still a profound mystery at the end of the film.

But the real strength of the piece was as an analysis of power and its destructive effects: I recently read someone correcting Acton's 'Power corrupts' to 'power exposes' and this film confirmed that this was closer to the mark. In the spotlight, every act of pettiness, and the pain it causes, simply becomes more visible. The Alaskan setting (collections of antlers!) added to the exotic feel of the whole thing, for a Brit viewer at any rate.