Of the many sins committed by this summer's pro-Sarah Palin documentary "The Undefeated," the most unforgivable was that director Stephen K. Bannon made his subject seem incredibly boring. Even those who can't stand Palin have to concede her ability to be incredibly charismatic -- you don't win over all those supporters just on looks alone -- but "The Undefeated" spent so much time turning her into a savior that it hardly tried to understand her. For its many flaws, director Nick Broomfield's "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" at least gets that right. For those who have seen Broomfield's juicy documentaries "Kurt & Courtney" and "Biggie and Tupac," you know to expect that his Palin film will be filled with colorful peripheral individuals who tell scandalous tales about her. But while I can't say I learned a lot about Palin, Broomfield provides enough entertainment value to make the trip worthwhile.
"Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" is pretty typical of Broomfield's approach. Serving as our on-screen guide through the material, Broomfield travels to Palin's hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, trying to speak to anyone who knew Palin. Not surprisingly, her friends and close associates want nothing to do with him, but that leaves room for a lot of people she's cut ties with along the way, including her former campaign adviser John Bitney and the man at the center of "Troopergate," Mike Wooten. And, because he likes causing silly public incidents, Broomfield also attends a few of Palin's book signings and speaking engagements to see about setting up an interview with her. (You can imagine how that goes.)
In his past documentaries, Broomfield has stirred up trouble and exposed the fascinating lives of those behind the big public figures he's chronicling. (For example, El Duce from "Kurt & Courtney" remains one of the most startling figures I've ever seen in a film, even though the movie's not about him at all.) "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" doesn't quite have anyone so indelible, although the chance to see Palin's seemingly friendly and down-to-earth parents is a real treat. (Others interviewed in the film swear it's all an act.) But even the people who don't talk to Broomfield are fun in their own way. (Levi Johnston's agent in particular is a hoot, even though we only hear his voice through a cell phone.)
When I saw the film, people in the audience seemed anxious for the big aha moment that would somehow "expose" Palin as the fraud that she is, but while it's undeniable that Broomfield tries (and mostly fails) to deliver that moment, I don't consider the movie to be a failure because it's light on new revelations. Instead, what gives the movie its drive is Broomfield's interest in Palin herself. While it might be somewhat disingenuous, Broomfield admits that in person he got caught up in her charm as well, and so the documentary in part is about him trying to figure out if that it-factor is real or an elaborate ruse. You can argue that he's not quite as open-minded as he claims to be -- the jokey title and tawdry ad campaign don't help -- but for anyone equally intrigued and terrified by this woman, "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" is actually more balanced than most of the coverage we've had of the onetime vice presidential candidate.
Speaking of charm, you'd think by this point I would have seen through Broomfield's shtick. But I have to admit he hooked me all over again: He may tilt toward the scandalous and divisive, but he's pretty great at getting people to talk and making them feel comfortable. The former friends and colleagues of Palin sound as angry as you'd imagine, which makes it hard to fully believe what they have to say, but Broomfield humanizes them so that they become engaging in their own right. If we define ourselves by the company we keep, then "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" suggests a brief peek into her backstory. This is hardly a definitive film on the Palin phenomenon, but it's a fun one.